Why is Sodium Being Reduced in Food?

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In October of 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made big news when it issued its final voluntary guidance for food manufacturers to reduce the sodium content across many categories of the packaged and processed foods that they produce. The guidance has been in the works since 2011.

Here’s a quick rundown of sodium’s role in health and why it’s being reduced in food.

What is sodium?

Sodium is an essential mineral for human health that the body cannot produce, so it must be consumed from foods, beverages and other external sources. Sodium is critical for life-sustaining activities such as muscle and nerve function.

When you think of sodium, salt probably comes to mind. Although the two terms, “sodium” and “salt” are often used interchangeably, they are different. Sodium is one element found in salt. The most common type of salt that we consume is sodium chloride. By weight, sodium makes up about 40% of sodium chloride.

Why is sodium in food?

The FDA has determined that salt is safe for use in foods. As part of salt, sodium plays a key role in food science by enhancing texture and flavor and creating a more uniform structure in bread and other products. Sodium is also a natural and effective preservative in foods. It increases the overall safety and quality of food by lowering water activity, thus prolonging shelf-life and delaying spoilage. This is the reason why salt was used as the primary method of preserving meats and various other foods before the invention of refrigeration.

But some foods today contain more sodium than may be necessary. One of the intents of FDA’s recent voluntary guidance is to encourage food manufacturers to reformulate certain foods where sodium content can be reduced, while maintaining their safety, quality and acceptable taste for consumers. Indirectly, the guidance from FDA is intended to benefit public health by making lower sodium foods more prevalent, which would hopefully result in Americans consuming less sodium. As such, the FDA guidance supports recent advice from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to reduce sodium consumption.

What happens if I consume too much sodium?

While sodium serves many beneficial roles in food science, consistently consuming excessive amounts of sodium each day is not beneficial to health. Regularly consuming too much sodium can put extra stress on the heart and blood vessels. Over time this can lead to high blood pressure. Being medically diagnosed with high blood pressure, also called hypertension, is associated with risk for heart disease, strokes and damage to the kidneys.

Most Americans consume more sodium than is recommended. On average, we consume about 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, but it is recommended that we keep it below 2,300 mg. More than 70% of the sodium that Americans consume comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods, while the other 30% is the sodium that we add during home cooking, at the table and that which occurs naturally in foods and beverages.

How can I keep sodium levels in check, maintain a healthful lifestyle and lower my blood pressure?

Here are a few lifestyle modifications that are known to positively influence blood pressure.

  • Be physically active
    • 30 minutes of daily aerobic physical activity can help lower blood pressure.
  • Follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet
    • Following a healthy diet, such as the DASH-style eating plan can help lower blood pressure.
    • The DASH diet promotes the consistent intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oils.
  • If you consume too much sodium, reduce your intake
    • Reducing sodium intake to recommended levels may help lower blood pressure (results can very between individuals).
    • Instead of adding salt and sodium-containing seasonings to your meals, consider trying alternatives to salt such as herbs and spices.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation
    • Alcohol consumption can negatively impact blood pressure. If you drink, women are advised to consume one drink or less per day and men are advised to consume no more than two drinks per day.
  • Lose weight if overweight
    • Maintaining a healthy weight can help maintain appropriate blood pressure.
  • Reduce stress
    • Chronic stress is associated with the development of high blood pressure as we age. Stress-reducing activities such as meditation may help to lower blood pressure.

Check out these additional resources on sodium:

Cutting Down on Sodium: 6 Alternatives to Salt

Getting Personal: How Much Sodium Do We Need?