: Americans are having a dangerous love affair with salt

Don’t pass the salt.

The Food and Drug Administration is concerned about America’s salt consumption, and the agency issued new guidance Wednesday for restaurants and food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the amount of sodium in their food to 3,000 mg per day — still higher than the recommended daily allowance — over a 2.5-year period.

“More than 70% of total sodium intake is from sodium added during food manufacturing and commercial-food preparation,” the FDA said.

Excess sodium in the diet helps to raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. In fact, research carried out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes that 90% of the U.S. population still consume too much salt, despite the many health warnings.

Americans consume around 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, according to one government study, but the CDC’s dietary guidelines recommend that people consume less than 2,300 milligrams each day. The CDC also recommends those aged 51 and over and African-Americans should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg.

Sodium can be tough to avoid when Americans dine out. A Big Mac from McDonalds 

 has 1,010 mg of sodium and Panera’s new white bread and pasta sandwich has1,650 mg of sodium. (McDonalds and Panera did not respond immediately to requests for comment.)

“‘For far too long, much of the food industry has done nothing about this problem, despite knowing the risks posed by diets high in salt.’”

— Dr. Peter G. Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

However, the new FDA guidelines don’t mean that restaurants and food makers will be forced to cut their use of salt.

“The use of the word should in FDA guidances means that something is suggested or recommended, but not required,” the federal agency said. The reduction “should progress gradually to allow time for product reformulation,” it added. “Population-level sodium intake reduction should progress at a pace such that consumer preferences and expectations for saltiness in foods adjust.”

Dr. Peter G. Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit nutrition watchdog, welcomed the FDA’s new guidelines, but said the food industry needs to do more. Excess sodium in the diet “raises blood pressure, increases risk of cardiovascular disease, and can lead to tens of thousands of early deaths and billions of dollars in health care costs per year,” he said. “That must change.”

“For far too long, much of the food industry has done nothing about this problem, despite knowing the risks posed by diets high in salt,” Lurie said. He called on the FDA to finalize its more ambitious, long-term 10-year targets for sodium reduction, and develop new, intermediate six-year targets. “These targets remain voluntary and, if compliance is poor, mandatory standards should be considered,” he said.

A leading trade group representing major restaurant brands provided input on the new guidelines, a spokeswoman said. “The National Restaurant Association provided substantive comment and feedback during the FDA’s development of the Voluntary Sodium Reduction Guidance,” Laura Abshire, director of food and sustainability policy at the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement. “While we look forward to reviewing the final guidance and are hopeful it incorporates our suggestions, the restaurant industry continues to provide options to address customers’ desires and health needs.”

A spokesman for the Food Industry Association, a national trade association for the food industry, said the organization “welcomes the agency’s efforts to ensure sodium reduction targets are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the average food consumption patterns in the U.S.” He said the industry also supports the FDA’s 2.5-year voluntarily timeline to implement the guidelines.

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