New FDA Changes Could Lower Your Sodium Intake

Americans are eating too much of this mineral, and the government wants to help by reducing sodium levels in foods

Salt shaker with shadow Photo: Getty Images

Most Americans eat far too much sodium, with 90 percent exceeding the recommended maximum daily intake of 2,300 milligrams. Because excess sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for heart disease and stroke, the Food and Drug Administration today announced new short-term “voluntary sodium reduction goals” for processed, packaged, and restaurant foods, which are responsible for more than 70 percent of overall sodium intake.

If manufacturers follow this guidance and modestly reduce the amount of sodium in a wide variety of foods over the next 2 1/2 years, it could reduce American’s average sodium intake from current levels of over 3,400 mg per day to 3,000 mg per day, according to the FDA. While that’s above the recommended maximum intake, it’s intended to be a gradual first step, according to Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, speaking at a press conference today announcing the voluntary goals. “We recognize that it is still too high, it is way over the recommended limit across all age groups, so there will need to be subsequent iterations to continue to reduce to get to a healthier food supply,” Mayne said.

Right now, people trying to make healthier choices need to compare different product labels, trying to figure out which ones have the lowest sodium content. “I try to do this myself, it’s hard, and you don’t always find what you’re looking for,” said acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD, at this morning’s press conference. “For those many Americans who are trying to have a healthier diet and eat healthier food, this should help because it will get the whole food supply to get less sodium, rather than having them pick and choose,” she said.

More on Maintaining Healthy Blood Pressure

Still, because these guidelines are voluntary, manufacturers will have to choose to implement them. “If the food manufacturers adopt these targets, it will be good for consumers,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a project leader in Consumer Reports’ food testing department. “Many people who try to follow their doctor’s advice to reduce their sodium intake have trouble because of the high sodium content of many packaged and restaurant foods.” Modestly reducing daily sodium intake by just 400 mg per day, the goal of these guidelines, could prevent approximately 32,000 heart attacks and 20,000 strokes each year, according to a 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The goals announced today are the final versions of draft goals first proposed in 2016. Yet these short term goals are still a first step, Woodcock says, with further action likely required to reduce sodium intake to recommended levels. “We’re going to monitor this as we go along—what is doing well, what food groups are getting there and when. Hopefully before we get to the end of the 2 ½ year period, we will have a good idea of what our plan should be for the next iteration. It will take time for the industry to adjust and also for people’s taste to adjust, so the population generally becomes used to a less salty food supply,” she says.

Hold the Salt

One of the things that makes it so hard reduce sodium intake is that even foods that people don’t think of as salty are hidden sources of sodium, Woodcock said.

“Who would think bread? But bread is one of the highest sources of sodium that people are getting,” she said. “The problem is that it’s cumulative. Everything, the tomato sauce, the cheese, the bread, the salad dressing—pretty soon your whole meal has hidden sodium in it. It’s really hard right now for people to manage that on their own.”

To develop the recommended guidelines, the FDA looked at the average amount of sodium from a 2010 baseline in 100 grams or 3 ½ ounces of 163 different categories of foods that are known to contribute to sodium intake, and recommended a reduced average level of sodium for that food.

For example, the average baseline amount of sodium in 3 ½ ounces of instant cereal like oatmeal is currently 576 mg, the voluntary guidelines suggest getting that down to 470 mg. The baseline amount of sodium in 3 ½ ounces of some types of white bread, including ciabatta and focaccia, is 522 mg. The goal according to the guidelines would be an average of 430 mg. For sausage that’s sold uncooked, the baseline is is 668 mg in 3 ½ ounces and the recommended target is 610 mg.

If manufacturers do adopt the short term guidelines, it could help consumers’ health.

“If we can reduce the sodium in frequently consumed foods, many with hidden sodium, that can really help consumers reduce their sodium intake,” she said.

Head shot image of CRO Health editor Kevin Loria

Kevin Loria

I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).