Life has gotten pretty salty in recent decades. And no, that doesn’t just describe the number of R-rated movies, raunchy music lyrics and wild Hollywood celebrities.
The average American consumes 3,353 milligrams daily of sodium, or more than twice what the Institute of Medicine says is an adequate intake for healthy people to eat daily, and 1,000 milligrams more than the recommended daily upper limit for sodium.
Salt — also known as sodium chloride — is key for regulating fluids in the body. But too much is unhealthy and can cause high blood pressure, a condition that already afflicts about 65 million Americans. An additional 45 million are poised to develop high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association. This common condition hikes the odds of having a stroke, heart disease or kidney problems.
There’s so much concern about the high sodium intake of Americans that two groups who usually don’t agree met recently to tackle the problem. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group, co-sponsored a conference to encourage food companies, restaurants, health professionals and government agencies to help Americans stay below the limit per day of 2,300 milligrams of sodium set by the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
“The interesting thing about the conference,” says center Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson, “is that it was co-sponsored. It indicates that the food industry realizes that high-sodium food is a real problem.”
The Food and Drug Administration is putting salt on its agenda, too. Later this month, the agency plans to have a public hearing to consider how to revise regulations of salt in food and to establish food-labeling requirements for salt and sodium.
Lest you think that the salt shaker is the sole culprit, think again: Seasoning by home cooks or shaken at the dinner table accounts for just about 10 percent of total sodium intake, according to the Institute of Medicine. About 75 percent of the sodium consumed in the United States is found in processed foods sold at groceries and restaurants.
“Reducing the amount of salt in processed foods and restaurant foods is perhaps the single most important thing we could do to reduce blood pressure and the incidence of heart attacks and strokes in this country and around the world,” Jacobson says. “It’s something that the food industry and government regulators are taking increasingly seriously.”
Some food companies have already cut sodium. Others seek ways to decrease it. Frozen peas, canned beans and soup as well as milk are among the foods that have less sodium. In 1963, one-half cup of peas contained nearly 500 milligrams of sodium. Today, a half-cup of frozen peas has 95 milligrams, an 81 percent decrease.
Canned soups also can be packed with sodium, but they, too, contain smaller amounts than years ago. In 1963, a cup of chicken noodle soup packed 1,000 milligrams of sodium. Now, it has about 650 milligrams, a 35 percent drop.
Yet despite these efforts, “it’s still tough to hit that 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day,” says Edward Roccella, who recently retired as coordinator of the National High Blood Pressure Education Program at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Remember that 2,300 milligrams represent the upper limit. The adequate intake for those age 9 to 50 is just 1,500 milligrams daily. For those 51 to 70, it’s 1,300 milligrams and for those 70 and older, just 1,200 milligrams — or less than the estimated 1,700 milligrams found in a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich on whole wheat with mustard.
The good news: While Americans are used to eating a high-sodium diet, it takes only a few weeks to adjust to a lower-sodium regimen.
Do that by reading product labels whenever possible. Jacobson notes a wide variation among brands. So two tablespoons of T. Marzetti Creamy Gorgonzola Dressing contains 290 milligrams of sodium while two tablespoons of Marie’s Chunky Blue Cheese salad dressing has just 160.
Also, figure that reduced-fat products often have more sodium to help add flavor. An ounce of pretzels has nearly 400 milligrams of sodium, while one ounce of potato chips contains 150 milligrams.
When possible, cook from scratch to help control sodium in your food. Look for herbs and flavorings — such as lemon, curry or other seasonings — to boost taste without adding sodium.
Finally, check out the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, popularly known as DASH, an eating plan developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute that is proved to help lower high blood pressure as much as some medications. Find more about DASH online at www.nhlbi.nih.gov.
Join Sally Squires online from 10 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays at www.leanplateclub.com, where you also can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club weekly e-mail newsletter.LEAN PLATE CLUBSally SquiresMORE COLUMNS