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Hold the Salt: A Growing Chorus

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Life has gotten pretty salty in recent decades. And no, that doesn't just describe the growing number of R-rated movies, raunchy song lyrics and wild Hollywood celebrities.

The average American consumes 3,353 milligrams of sodium every day -- more than twice what the Institute of Medicine says is adequate for healthy people and 1,000 milligrams more than the recommended maximum.

Salt -- also known as sodium chloride -- is key for regulating fluids in the body. But too much can cause high blood pressure, which already afflicts about 65 million Americans and, according to the American Heart Association, threatens an additional 45 million. This common condition hikes the odds of having a stroke, heart disease or kidney problems, including renal failure.

There's so much concern about the high sodium intake of Americans that two groups that usually don't see eye to eye met recently to tackle the problem. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry group, co-sponsored a conference to encourage food companies, restaurants, health professionals and government agencies to help Americans stay below the 2,300-milligram daily limit set by the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

"It was an historic first," says Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy for the GMA.

"The interesting thing about the conference is that it was co-sponsored," says CSPI's executive director, Michael F. Jacobson. "It indicates that the food industry realizes that high-sodium food is a real problem."

Later this month, the Food and Drug Administration also plans to address sodium concerns. In response to a 2005 petition filed by the CSPI, the FDA is slated to hold a public hearing to look at revising the regulatory status of salt in food and to establish food labeling requirements for salt and sodium.

Lest you think your salt shaker is the sole culprit, think again: Seasoning added by home cooks or at the dinner table accounts for only about 10 percent of total sodium intake. Some 75 percent of the salt consumed in the United States is found in processed foods bought at a grocery store, vending machine, restaurant or fast-food franchise.

"Reducing the amount of salt in processed foods and restaurant foods is perhaps the single most important thing we could do to reduce blood pressure and the incidence of heart attacks and strokes in this country and around the world," Jacobson says. "It's something that the food industry and government regulators are taking increasingly seriously."

Some food companies have already cut sodium. Frozen peas, canned beans and soup as well as milk are among the foods that have lowered sodium content. In 1963, a half-cup of frozen peas contained nearly 500 milligrams of sodium. Today, a half-cup has 95 milligrams, an 81 percent decrease.

Sodium has also been slashed in some canned soups. In 1963, a typical cup of chicken noodle packed 1,000 milligrams of sodium. Now, that same cup of soup has about 650 milligrams -- a 35 percent drop -- and some brands now contain about 480 milligrams per cup. Low-sodium varieties can have as little as 140 milligrams.

Despite these efforts, "it's still tough to hit that 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day," says Edward Roccella, who recently retired as coordinator of the National High Blood Pressure Education Program at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. And remember, that's the upper limit of what should be consumed. The adequate intake for people 9 to 50 years old is 1,500 milligrams. For those ages 51 to 70, it's 1,300 milligrams and for those older than 70, it's just 1,200 milligrams -- less than what a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich on whole wheat with mustard can pack.

The good news: While Americans are used to eating a high-sodium diet, it only takes a few weeks to adjust to a lower-sodium regimen. To help make that switch, read and compare product labels whenever possible. Jacobson says there's wide variation among products. For example, two tablespoons of T. Marzetti creamy gorgonzola dressing contains 290 milligrams of sodium, while two tablespoons of Marie's chunky blue cheese dressing has just 160.

Also, figure that reduced-fat products may have more sodium to help add flavor. So one ounce of pretzels has nearly 400 milligrams of sodium, while one ounce of potato chips contains about 150 milligrams.

When possible, cook from scratch to help control how much sodium is in your food. Look for herbs and flavorings -- such as lemon, curry or Mrs. Dash's seasonings -- to add flavor without adding sodium.

Finally, check out the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), an eating plan developed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute that has proved to help lower high blood pressure as much as some medications. Find more about DASH online at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/new_dash.pdf.

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