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For the first time, the FDA is pressuring the food industry to cut down on salt

If food companies follow guidance from the FDA, processed products like chips will soon be less salty.
Marc Dietrich/Shutterstock

Most Americans eat too much salt, but it's not because they always go crazy with the saltshaker.

Three-quarters of all of the sodium in our food is in processed and restaurant foods. Think deli meats, pizza, and snacks like popcorn. High sodium is a big part of what makes these foods so tasty.

Public health groups have been sounding the alarm for years about how the food industry's liberal use of sodium is harmful to our health. And today, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines outlining how food companies and restaurants can rein in their salt use.

As it stands, the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day. Health officials recommend that people aim to eat no more than 2,300 mg per day.

"One in three individuals has high blood pressure," the FDA said in a statement, "which has been linked to diets high in sodium and is a major risk factor cause of heart disease and stroke." While many Americans try to watch their salt intake, "the deck has been stacked against them," the agency added.

The new guidelines, which are still in draft form, set targets for the gradual lowering of salt in a range of products including both processed and restaurant foods over the short term (two years) and long term (10 years).

Sodium is added to food for many reasons — from taste and fermentation to preventing food from spoiling. Food companies can currently add any amount they want.

A number of manufacturers — including Nestlé, Mars Food, and General Mills — have already responded to the pressure to cut the sodium in their products or offer low-salt alternatives.

But many processed foods are generally still way too salty. For example, meals at chain restaurants like Olive Garden and TGI Friday's can contain a day's worth of sodium, as can sandwiches at fast-casual joints such as Quizno's and Panera Bread, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group that has been closely tracking the industry's sodium footprint. A single serving of fish and chips could have more than 1,400 mg, while two slices of bread could total 360 mg.

Anand Katakam/Vox

The new guidelines will be subject to intense lobbying before they're finalized

The public now has up to 150 days to comment on the guidelines. Then the FDA will issue the final guidance.

"This is the first real thing the FDA has done to get companies to lower sodium levels," said Michael F. Jacobson, the president of CSPI. Reformulating products can be costly and could change their taste and texture, which is part of the reason not all food companies have been willing to make changes.

Though CSPI and the Institute of Medicine had asked the FDA to issue mandatory guidance — which would force companies to comply with regulations on lower sodium levels — the voluntary approach is in line with what other countries (such as Britain and Canada) have already done. And, said Jacobson, it was likely the most politically viable route under a Republican Congress: "If the guidelines were mandatory, lawmakers could run to Congress and say, 'Shut down the FDA.'"

The new guidelines follow on the heels of the FDA's overhaul of the nutrition labels on food packages — another tenet of the Obama administration's efforts to improve the American diet.

It's not clear what the final guidelines will look like or when they'll take effect. But Jacobson pointed out that progress in lowering sodium in products has been uneven among brands and that he expects at least some pushback from the salt, restaurant, and food industry lobby.

How to start cutting your salt intake now

If you're concerned about your sodium intake now, you don't have to wait for food companies to cut back.

One easy way to follow a low-sodium diet is to make fresh fruits and vegetables central to your diet. "If it’s fresh, you don’t have to worry about the sodium," said Norman Kaplan, a blood pressure researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "The fact that nothing in nature is high in salt should tell people something."

It gets dicier at restaurants, where it's often hard to know how much salt was added to food. As the handy Vox chart above shows, restaurant dishes often contain an excessive amount of sodium.

Packaged foods are often just as bad as restaurant food, if not worse. Luncheon meats, canned foods, and condiments can contain particularly egregious amounts of sodium. (One serving of ham has about half a day's worth of sodium, while three tablespoons of soy sauce or two cups of canned chicken soup deliver enough for an entire day.)

You can skirt these concerns by preparing food at home yourself. Our explainer on how to cook with salt to enhance your food should help, too.

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