Health officials are urging food manufacturers and services to take drastic action against America’s insatiable appetite for salt.
The Food and Drug Administration has asked food-producing companies to slash the amount of salt in their products by at least 12%, giving businesses 2½ years to hit the mark, according to a statement made Wednesday.
“What we’d like to see is the food industry gradually lower the sodium content,” Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock told NBC News, targeting conventionally purchased foods and groceries — namely, processed and prepackaged foods, such as condiments, snacks and frozen dinners, as well as dishes from chain restaurants.
They hope the new guidance will reduce rates of heart disease — the No. 1 cause of premature death in the US. Reducing sodium intake “would have a major impact on hypertension, heart disease and stroke,” Woodcock added.
The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans calls for adults to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams, or about one teaspoon, of sodium per day — well below the national daily average of about 3,400 milligrams of sodium.
The new recommendations would see that Americans reduce that average down to 3,000 milligrams, a 12% decrease. And while companies are not required to comply, Woodcock said that those that do would receive a “reward” for their action, though the FDA did not clarify what the prize would entail.
Physicians outside federal agencies agree that salt intake must come down if we hope to challenge the nation’s hypertension epidemic, in which nearly half of all U.S. adults have high blood pressure.
Too much salt can inhibit the kidneys from expelling fluid from the body, leading to a build-up that puts pressure on blood vessels, causing them to stiffen and narrow over time. As a result, the flow of blood and oxygen throughout the body decreases, raising one’s risk of heart damage, fat accumulation in the arteries and ischemic stroke.
However, not all physicians agree with the sweeping new guidelines, including cardiovascular researcher and “The Salt Fix” author James DiNicolantonio, who takes a more nuanced approach to dietary recommendations.
He warned The Post of “unintended consequences” of reducing salt across the board, pointing out that salt is a preferred natural preservative around the world, as opposed to nitrates, nitrites and phosphates, all of which have also been maligned by health experts and nutritionists. And a lack of necessary preservatives in store-bought food could lead to an increase in food-borne illnesses and “cut expiration dates in half,” said DiNicolantonio, leading to greater food spoilage.
As a research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute and associate editor of the journal BMJ Open Heart, DiNicolantonio claimed that our standard salt consumption “does not seem to be a problem for most people” on a nutritious, whole-food diet, he told The Post.
His work has revealed “that approximately 80% of people with normal blood pressure … are not sensitive to the blood-pressure-raising effects of salt at all,” he wrote in his 2017 book, and asserted that healthy adults — excluding, in particular, those with kidney disease — could have up to 6,000 milligrams of sodium a day with no ill effects.
“We know that lowering salt intake doesn’t reduce blood pressure that much and has many other harmful consequences, such as increased heart rate, insulin levels, stress hormones like angiotensin-II, renin, aldosterone and noradrenaline; cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and lowers HDL (the good cholesterol),” he alleged. “Would a lower blood pressure offset those harms?”
Rather than relying on food manufacturers to reduce their sodium supplies, DiNicolantonio would like to see a greater emphasis on an increase of potassium and magnesium, which are “much more important when it comes to blood pressure,” he said.
Moreover, salt is a favored seasoning in cuisine, helping to make “bitter foods that are high in potassium and magnesium” more palatable. In other words, it encourages people to eat and enjoy more vegetables.
The Post has reached out to NYU Langone Health’s Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease for further comment.