Ask the Doctors: New FDA guidance asks food manufacturers to cut salt in their products

It’s targeting food manufacturers, restaurants and other vendors of prepared foods in an effort to help reduce how much sodium Americans consume.

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Dear Doctors: Is it true we’re being told to eat even less salt? How much salt is OK to eat? Why is it this advice keeps changing?

Dear Reader: You are correct about the recent updated guidance regarding how much salt we should — or should not — consume.

Federal nutrition advice comes in the form of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.

But the new information about salt comes from a different source, the federal Food and Drug Administration. It’s aimed not at individuals but at the food industry.

Because compliance is voluntary, it has been labeled guidance. The FDA is asking food manufacturers, restaurants and other vendors of prepared foods to cut the salt in their products to help reduce the amount Americans consume.

Over the next 30 months, the FDA wants the food industry to adjust its products so sodium intake drops from 3,400 milligrams to 3,000 milligrams a day for the average American.

Though this is about 12% lower than current sodium levels in prepared foods, it’s still markedly higher than the 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day for anyone 14 or older listed in the official Dietary Guidelines.

And that’s the point. Due largely to the prevalence of prepared foods, the average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day.

The adverse health effects of excess salt diet are well-known. It can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease.

The Dietary Guidelines recommend children between 1 and 3 years old consume less than 1,200 milligrams of sodium a day. Children between 4 and 8 should consume less than 1,500, and those 9 to 13 years old should get less than 1,800.

Whether food manufacturers comply with the FDA’s request, understanding how much sodium is added to prepared food before you even touch a salt shaker can help limit your intake. People who read sodium percentages on food labels say they’re often startled by the high numbers — an awareness that helps them make healthier choices for themselves and their families.

Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are internists at UCLA Health.

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