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Assessing the Salt Content of Processed Foods
About a month ago I had to update our page on Low Sodium Diets (Bite, 03/03/10). Turns out the estimates of how much salt people in the United States were consuming, on average, had gone up: to over 10 GRAMS of salt per day for men and 7.4 grams per day for women. If everyone reduced their salt intake to the recommended maximum of 2.4 grams per day, we could avoid as many as 92,000 deaths every year.

Sodium and Food Labels
The government created rules back in the 1980s for nutrition information labeling on packaged foods. Before the regulations were passed the only information required was a listing of the ingredients in the package. Other than that we were pretty much on our own and had to guess what might or might not be in any particular food.

Quantifying the Effects of Less Salt
I have said in the past that the typical American eats over 6000 milligrams (or 6 GRAMS) of sodium per day. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine(2010;362(7):590-9) means I'm going to have to update that figure: the latest estimates, for 2005-2006, estimate that every adult male in the United States eats an average of 10.4 grams of salt per day. Women, on the other hand, only eat a more modest (and I use that term facetiously) amount of 7.3 grams per day.


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Are we ready to cut salt?

a woman adding salt from a salt shaker to her pizza

If you're reading this, you're probably well aware that the average American eats far more salt than is good for them, with estimates of the average sodium intake ranging from 3,400 milligrams to over 10,000 milligrams per day. The vast majority of the salt in foods comes not from the individual diner adding it at the table, but rather it is added during cooking (or processing). With so many people subsisting on processed foods or restaurant meals, it's natural for folks in public health to wonder if it's time for the government to take action to limit the amount of salt in our food.

After the controversy surrounding New York's limiting the sizes of beverages a consumer can purchase, it would also be reasonable to wonder if the American people are ready for government action. Researchers at the CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention had a novel thought: why not ask them?

Or at least a representative sample of them (Am J Prev Med 2014;46(5):516-524). In 2010 over 9,500 Americans over the age of 18 responded to a survey which asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like these: "I think it's a good idea for government to keep food manufacturers from putting too much salt in food," and "I think it's a good idea for government to keep restaurants from putting too much salt in food." In addition to typical demographic questions like race/ethnicity, education level, and gender, they were also asked for their height and weight, whether they had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and if they "want to eat a diet that is low in sodium/salt."

Over half of those surveyed (56%) agreed at least moderately that it was a good idea for government to restrict the amount of salt added by food manufacturers, while a little less than half (47%) agreed that it was a good idea for government to restrict the amount of salt in restaurant food. An even greater proportion - over 80%! - agreed that government should limit the amount of sodium in the food from quick service restaurants (fast food).

What this means for you

I find it very encouraging that there is so much support for limiting the amount of sodium in our foods, even if no governmental action is taken. If you're looking to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet, here are three simple steps to a low sodium diet.

First posted: April 23, 2014