Should the FDA Regulate Sodium Intake?

Sodium, like fat and carbohydrates, is entering the spotlight as a food we should avoid. The Institute of Medicine released a report on April 21, 2010 stating that Americans eat too much salt and urged the FDA to regulate sodium content in foods.  All the organizations seem to agree that Americans consume too much salt:

  1. The report from the IOM shows an upward trend in sodium intake since the 1970s,
  2. An FDA press release began this week stating that Americans consume several times as much sodium as their bodies need,
  3. And the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the average American consumes twice as much sodium as their daily recommendation, 2300 milligrams of sodium.

Sodium, or sodium chloride, is essential for maintaining fluid balance in the body. The average American needs only one teaspoon of sodium per day; people with special conditions, such as high blood pressure, need less.  Eating too much sodium can cause a range of health problems, most notably high blood pressure, which can lead to arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), aneurysm, heart disease, stroke, dementia and other cognitive impairments, kidney failure, and damage to the blood vessels, nerves, and retina in the eyes. Basically, having high blood pressure makes your heart work harder to pump blood to the rest of your body, and if your heart is forced to work too hard day after day pumping blood, you put yourself at risk for the above complications.

Sea SaltReducing sodium intake is somewhat complicated for three reasons: (1) Salt has been used since ancient times as a preservative, flavor enhancer, and recipe thickener (2) our bodies have evolved to crave salt because of the health risks of not having enough and (3) the American diet is absolutely loaded with salt.

Considering the first reason, the CDC statistic that 77% of the average Americans’ daily sodium intake comes from processed foods should come as no surprise.  We like salt in our canned foods (think soup) and processed meats (think corned beef) for both shelf life and flavor.  The other remaining 23% of our daily salt intake comes from food that naturally contain sodium (12%), adding salt at the table (6%), and salting foods during cooking (5%).  Salt is necessary, for example, to give texture, flavor, and structure to some of the most traditionally healthy foods such as breads, beans, and soups.

The third reason is obviously perpetuated by the first and second reasons.  A Premium Crispy Chick Club Sandwich with French Fries at McDonalds provides 1800 milligrams of sodium.  Salt is also hidden in many low-fat foods, as sodium has made up for flavor lost in our focus on low-fat foods.  One cup of low fat cottage cheese can contain 900 milligrams of sodium and low-fat dressing can contain up to 700 milligrams.

It seems somewhat reasonable for the FDA to regulate sodium intake, but, as a proponent of natural foods, I think there is much reason to worry. Although the IOM is advocating for better ways to track our sodium intake (this makes me think of better consumer education) and urging food companies to collectively reduce sodium content in food, it is also urging development of “innovative methods to reduce sodium in food while maintaining palatability, physical properties, and safety.”  We don’t yet have a substitute for salt, but we have reason to believe that a salt substitution might not be safe.  After all, substituting high-fructose corn syrup for sugar isn’t the healthiest choice, but it’s still considered “safe” by FDA standards.  It isn’t completely unlikely either that food companies might increase sugar content to make up for reduced sodium content.

Perhaps the best way for us to use the IOM’s newly released report on sodium is to start becoming more aware of the amount of sodium for that matter we eat on a daily basis.  As with most government-run programs, individual reform would be much quicker and probably healthier.  Here are some easy ways to reduce your salt intake:

  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Flavor foods with other herbs instead of salt.  Summer is a great time to start growing your own herbs as well!
  • Don’t snack on salty foods. If you snack, try swapping your salty snack foods for whole foods such as fruits and vegetables or even unsalted popcorn.  You might be surprised as to how well you adjust.
  • Read food labels, paying close attention to the “percent daily value” of sodium listed on the nutrition facts panel.  Any food with over 20% of your daily value for sodium is considered high by FDA standards.
  • Eat less processed and restaurant foods.  If this is where 77% of our sodium intake comes from, it only makes sense to eat less of it.  Odds are, if you make a soup yourself instead of out of a can, you’re going to add less salt than Campbell’s or Progresso would.  Try making your own macaroni and cheese with real cheese, milk, and a little butter, your own spaghetti sauce with real tomatoes and fresh herbs, or your own cake from scratch.  If you have the time, passing up the packaged foods for real recipes is much more rewarding, both in terms of taste and the emotional/spiritual value of your meal.

If you’re ready to get started on making your own lower-sodium versions of traditionally salty foods, here are two recipes to get you started.  Although the recipes cook for 30 to 60 minutes, they require relatively little preparation (less than 15 minutes).  Salt and pepper are added at the end of each recipe to avoid using too much salt.

Split Pea Soup
Adapted from The Moosewood Cookbook
Although this soup still uses salt as a seasoning, cider vinegar, black pepper, and sesame oil pack add new flavor to an old recipe.  Serves 6.
3 cups dry split peas
8 cups water
2 bay leaves
2 medium onions, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, sliced
1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Sesame oil (for garnish)

  1. Place split peas, water, and bay leaves in a large pot.  Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer partially covered for 20 minutes.
  2. Add onion, garlic, carrots, and sweet potato.  Simmer partially covered for about 40 more minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more water, if necessary.
  3. Add vinegar and salt and pepper.  Serve topped with sesame oil.  Enjoy!

Fresh Tomato Sauce
There’s nothing like fresh tomato sauce, especially in the summer when fresh tomatoes and herbs are readily available.  The sauce can be made as plain or complex as your heart desires.  Serves 6.
6 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 onions chopped
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Fresh herbs, to taste
White wine, optional
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat tomatoes, onions, and olive oil in a large saucepan.  Add fresh herbs and white wine to taste and simmer for 30 minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve over pasta, couscous or quinoa.  Enjoy!

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