Scientists push to lower hidden sodium in food

July 29, 2003 in Heart Health, Nutrition Topics in the News

Scientists push to lower hidden sodium in food

The average American consumes the equivalent of nearly two teaspoons of salt every day, almost double the upper limit for good health.

And before anyone protests about hardly touching the salt shaker, consider: The vast majority of that sodium is hidden inside common foods, from spaghetti sauce to frozen dinners.

Now public health specialists are pressuring food manufacturers and restaurants to cut the salt, because too much sodium is bad for your blood pressure -- and high blood pressure hurts your heart, brain and kidneys. Reduced-sodium alternatives are rare in grocery aisles.

A Food and Drug Administration effort to ratchet down the sodium in some foods the salt-conscious might choose -- those labeled "healthy" -- has largely stalled. Manufacturers argue it's hard to change the recipe but keep the taste.

On one thing do food makers and health critics agree: Making our food supply less salty will require consumer demand, and so far that has focused mostly on trimming the fat. Being overweight and inactive are the major culprits for high blood pressure, but too much salt plays a role, too.

People with hypertension are advised to eat a low-sodium diet, about 1,500 milligrams a day. For healthy people, the government recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily, the equivalent of a heaping teaspoon of salt. But the average American eats over 4,000 mg a day -- three-quarters of it from processed food and restaurant meals.

Sodium is used in preserving certain foods, and to pump up other flavors. Other spices can be more expensive. But "taste is the No. 1 reason people buy foods" -- and low-sodium brands generally have not sold well, say grocery executives.

Stores carry a handful of "no salt added" canned vegetables. For tomatoes, that can save 175 mg of sodium over the regular variety, and 375 mg per serving of canned green beans. Then there are foods labeled "healthy," like Healthy Choice or Campbell's Healthy Request brands. FDA allows no more than 480 mg of sodium in "healthy" soups, compared to canned soups' typical 800- to 1,000 mg.

"Healthy" frozen dinners can have no more than 600 mg, far below the whopping 1,500 found in some popular in-a-bowl meals.

FDA has long intended to ratchet the "healthy" levels further down, but that effort stalled as food makers, led by Healthy Choice maker ConAgra, argued they haven't yet found good-tasting alternatives -- and some lower-sodium frozen-dinner brands quit selling.

Consequently, FDA is considering giving soup makers until 2006 to lower sodium levels to 360 mg per serving or lose the healthy label -- and letting frozen dinners stay at 600 mg for fear no brands would go lower.

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