Fast Facts on Sodium:
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day
The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, especially for people with heart disease or high blood pressure
The average American eats 3,400 mg of sodium per day
High sodium consumption is tightly linked with an increased risk of heart disease and hypertension
Approximately 75% of the average American’s sodium intake comes from processed and commercially prepared foods
While sodium is necessary for a healthy, functioning body, the American public as a whole is not at risk for hyponatremia (abnormally low sodium levels). The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (the daily value for sodium is currently set at 2,400 mg but will change to 2,300 mg when the new nutrition labels come out in July of 2018). The American Heart Association recommends that the American public consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, especially those who are at high risk of heart disease. The average American consumes 3,400 mg of sodium per day. The majority of sodium comes from processed and commercially prepared (i.e. restaurant) foods. In fact, those sources make up nearly 75% of the average American adult’s daily sodium intake.
Under the Obama administration, the FDA was tasked with coming up up with voluntary sodium reduction guidelines for the foodservice industry. In a series of major nutrition releases (final menu labeling guidelines, new nutrition facts panels, introduction of a definition for “natural,” redefining evaporated cane juice, etc.), the FDA released these industry goals in early June. The FDA document states that, “This voluntary guidance aims to help Americans achieve the Dietary Guidelines-recommended sodium levels by encouraging food manufacturers, restaurants, and food service operations to reduce sodium in foods.”
The document that was released is just considered draft guidance at this point, and has left it open to comments from the general public and the industry. As part of the voluntary reduction guidelines, the FDA has identified about 150 unique processed food groups (the FDA does not call out sources of naturally occurring sodium like milk or vegetables), and has created short-term (2 year) and long-term (10 year) sodium reduction goals for each food group. The FDA does not make any recommendations as to how the industry should reduce sodium, nor does it make any comment on where the sodium in food should be coming from (i.e. salt, monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrite, sodium bicarbonate, etc.) but rather focuses on sodium reduction as a whole over the food supply.
The FDA wants sodium reduction in the food supply to happen gradually, as to not deter manufacturers or restaurants from making the changes, and so consumers’ palates can adjust to less salty offerings. They also do not want the decrease in sodium to negatively impact the nutrition of the item by increasing levels of other nutrients such as added sugars or saturated fat.
While the purpose of the sodium reduction goals is to improve the overall health of the American public, it’s uncertain to what extent they will be followed by the industry. Some brands have already been working to reduce the sodium in their foods. Mars and Nestle are two large retail manufacturers who are working to reduce the sodium in their SKUs in a way that still pleases consumers but allows their products to better fit in a 2,300 mg of sodium per day diet. Subway has reduced the amount of sodium in their lunch and dinner sandwiches by 15% over the past three years. It will be largely up to the industry to make the sodium reduction goals a success. Large brands that choose to follow the guidelines will make it more of a necessity for the rest of the industry to do the same to ensure they’re still on trend. Consumer demand will also largely influence the industry in their decision to meet the voluntary goals or not.
While the impact on retail foods may be relatively clear, restaurateurs and other similar foodservice operators may be wondering how they will be affected. For one, it’s likely that manufacturers will be altering their formulations if they’re already making changes to retail lines. That could mean new flavor profiles or textures that will need to be accommodated. The new regulations also mean that consumers will be hyperaware of the sodium in the food they’re eating now that it’s been brought even further into the spotlight. That means if a foodservice establishment doesn’t already have sodium values posted, now is the time to do so. It’s also the time to look at recipes and identify areas for sodium reduction. The FDA has identified food groups such as entrees and salads that correspond to restaurant offerings, so there will be goals that restaurants and similar establishments can follow.
Overconsumption of sodium is a large public health concern, and the industry plays a huge part in helping curb the epidemic. Hypertension, heart disease and stroke are all leading causes of death in the United States, but are possible to avoid with the help of a better diet. The voluntary sodium reduction goals are an important step in preventing these diseases and improving the overall health of the country. The first step in following the FDA’s guidelines is to identify sources of sodium in menu items or retail offerings, and to work with a knowledgable third party to find ways to improve those values. Consumers are demanding more healthful and nutritious offerings more than ever, and it’s up to the industry to recognize this and make the appropriate changes to meet the growing need.