How Much Salt? New Guidelines for Healthy Living

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidance to reduce sodium in packaged and processed food products.  The guidance, which has been in the works since 2011, provides both short-term and long-term strategies for food companies to meet specific reduction goals. The announced guidelines on sodium reduction are aimed to promote the health of Americans. Here's what you need to know. 

What is sodium?

When you think of sodium, salt probably comes to mind. Although the two terms, “sodium” and “salt” are often used interchangeably, they are different substances. Sodium is a mineral that the body cannot produce, so it must be supplied by food. Sodium is essential for basic activities such as muscle and nerve function.  As stated by the National Academy of Sciences’ Dietary Reference Intakes, “Concerns have been raised that a low level of sodium intake adversely affects blood lipids, insulin resistance, and cardiovascular disease risk. However, at the level of the AI [adequate intake], the preponderance of evidence does not support this contention.

Why is sodium in my food?

Besides its impact on general health, sodium also plays a key role in food science by enhancing texture and flavor and creating a more uniform structure in bread and other products.

Sodium is also a natural and effective preservative in foods.  It increases the overall safety and quality of food by lowering water activity; thus the reduction of spoilage. It’s no wonder our ancestors used sodium to preserve meat.  It was the primary method of preserving meats and various foods as far back as history records.

The FDA has determined that sodium is “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS.  For a GRAS ingredient to be added to foods and beverages for a particular use, key information that supports the ingredient’s safety must be publicly available and accepted within the scientific community.

What happens if I consume too much sodium?nutrition facts label sodium

While sodium serves a key role in enhancing safety, flavor and texture, eating high levels of sodium can have health consequences.  When sodium intake increases, blood pressure increases. A healthy (normal) blood pressure should be less than 120/80. Blood pressure of greater than 140/90 is considered high. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.  Individual sodium requirements will differ depending on age, gender, physical activity level, ethnicity, health condition, and salt sensitivity.

Most Americans consume more sodium than is currently recommended.  The official recommendation from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans states, “Healthy eating patterns limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day for adults and children ages 14 years and older and to the age- and sex-appropriate Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) of sodium for children younger than 14 years.” The new DGA also state that for individuals with prehypertension and hypertension “further reduction to 1,500 mg per day can result in even greater blood pressure reduction.”

How can I keep sodium levels in check, maintain a healthful lifestyle and lower my blood pressure?

  • Lose weight if overweight
    • Maintaining a healthy weight helps maintain appropriate blood pressure. If you are overweight (BMI ≥25) or obese (BMI ≥30), losing weight can reduce blood pressure.
  • Follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet
    • Adhering to a DASH-style eating plan can help lower blood pressure.
    • The DASH diet emphasizes consumption of fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, whole grains, fish, lean meats (such as beef and skinless poultry), and nuts—and are rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, fiber, and protein.
  • If you consume excess sodium, try reducing your intake
    • Reducing sodium intake to recommended levels may help lower blood pressure (results can very between individuals).
    • Instead of adding more salt to your meals, consider trying alternatives such as herbs and spices to enhance flavor and texture of your favorite foods.
  • Be physically active
    • Including 30 minutes of daily aerobic physical activity can help lower blood pressure.  

By following these basic tips and consulting with your healthcare professional, you can reduce sodium intake in your diet.

Check out these additional resources on sodium:

IFIC Foundation Sodium Man on the Street (video)

2015 Dietary Guidelines:  What Changed; What Stayed the Same (sodium)