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Sodium

Sodium (salt) in foods is contributing to a range of health issues, in the US and worldwide.

The US Food and Drug Administration is tackling the issue at a national level, and numerous local programs are also underway. SGS food expert, Jim Cook, explores the issue in more detail.

In June 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) published a draft guidance to the industry concerning voluntary sodium reduction goals for commercially processed, packaged and prepared foods.1 The issue is that Americans consume an average of 3,400 milligrams per day (mg/day) of sodium, and the US FDA’s Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) is reducing, from 2,400 mg/day to 2,300 mg/day. This means the average American is consuming 50% more sodium than the revised RDI. Too much sodium can raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart diseases and stroke. Some studies have indicated that by lowering individuals’ sodium intake by 40% in the next decade, 500,000 lives could be saved, as well as nearly USD 100 billion in healthcare.

Short and Long Term Sodium Goals 

The US FDA has established a 2-year short-term goal and a 10-year long-term goal to reduce sodium in processed, packaged and prepared foods. The short-term goal is to reduce the sodium level from 3,400 mg/day to 3,000 mg/day, and the longer term goal will reduce this to near the 2,300 mg/day RDI. 

The plan addresses all categories of processed foods that would have significant sodium. However, the main concern is with those items that have high sodium levels and which are also consumed in larger quantities or more frequently, such as pizza, sandwiches, deli meats, pasta dishes, snacks, breads and other bakery products. Some items such as seasonings and dried fish, whilst being very high in sodium don’t impact the consumer’s sodium intake as much, because these items are not consumed in large volumes. The US FDA has established sodium reduction targets for 16 categories and 150 sub-categories, as not all products have the same levels of sodium or need to reduce sodium levels in the same quantities in order for the American population to reach the indicated overall recommended intake.

For each sub-category, the US FDA established a baseline sales-weighted mean sodium level from 2010 data, established a short and long term sales-weighted mean, and an individual product short and long-term sales-weighted upper limit.2

Examples (sodium amounts are in mg)

Food Category Sodium 2010 mean Sodium Short Term Mean Sodium Short Term Upper Limit Sodium Long Term Mean Sodium Long Term Upper Limit
Feta cheese (soft) 1174 1120 1340 1000 1220
Salad dressings 1047 880 1200 590 920
Dry mix soup 1892 1640 2080 1290 1810
White bread 523 440 570 300 460
Frankfurters, hot dogs and bologna 1012 900 1150 730 1000
Pretzels 1214 1020 1460 750 1150
Pizza without meat/poultry or seafood – frozen 508 420 570 260 420
Breakfast sandwiches on biscuits 736 660 810 440 650

Global Salt Reduction Initiatives 

What the US FDA is requesting is not unusual, as there are 75 countries working to reducing sodium and/or salt intake, and 39 of those have set specific limits for one or more processed foods.3 The United Kingdom’s food safety salt (sodium chloride) reduction program started in 2003 and has made significant progress over the years. Their 2012 salt targets in 80 categories have reduced salt levels in food by 40-50%, which means that 11 million kilograms of salt has been removed from foods. The current consumption of salt is still too high, at 8.1 to 8.8g/day so the new 2017 targets for 76 categories will help reduce salt intake closer to the 6g adult daily maximum.4 

Brazil is another of those countries that is making strides in reducing individuals’ sodium intake.5 Since it started the reduction process in 2011 results have been promising. This has been difficult in a country burdened by both food insecurity and obesity, and the related diseases of both areas. Firstly, Brazil identified the categories, such as breads, instant noodles, buns, snacks, cakes, breakfast cereals, soups, dairy products and meat products, which accounted for more than 90% of the sodium in processed food. Selected product categories were then targeted for reduction; these were instant noodles, breads and buns. As of 2014, the average sodium reduction in these categories has been 10 to 15%, from the initial basis in 2011. These programs will continue until at least 2020 because Brazil wants to achieve an average sodium consumption level of 2,000 mg per day, as recommend by the World Health Organization, from a starting point of 4,700 mg per day. The anticipated benefits of this would be a reduction in deaths from hypertension by 15% and a 10% reduction in deaths from heart diseases. This equates to 1.5 million people not needing hypertension medication, and those individual’s life expectancy increasing by some four years.

Community Programs

Additionally, various states, counties and cities in the US are participating in the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC) Sodium Reduction in Communities Program.6 The program’s intended outcomes are to increase the availability and accessibility of lower sodium food products, and to increase the purchase or selection of lower sodium food products, thereby reducing sodium intake. Most of the programs center around providing lower sodium products to hospitals, government food services and vending operations, as well as to school meal programs. New York City established a standard and implemented a labeling identity for these lower sodium products. Government agencies and hospitals were then encouraged to use these lower sodium products. The city of Philadelphia also worked with Chinese food service operations to make lower sodium options more available on the menu. Washington State also increased the availability of lower sodium foods at non-chain independent restaurants. 

This US FDA sodium reduction program is just part of an initiative to have the US public make healthy food choices, because people who eat healthily have fewer health problems and this reduces the impact on healthcare systems. Other initiatives included in these healthy food choice programs are the new nutrition facts panel, menu labeling and vending machine calories information.7

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For further information contact: 

Jim Cook 
Global Food Inspection Technical Manager 
t: +1 973-461-1493

References:

1 Guidance to the Industry Concerning Voluntary Sodium Reduction Goals for Commercially Processed, Packaged and Prepared Foods
2 FDA Food Catergoires and Voluntary Targets
3 Mapping salt reduction initiatives in the WHO European Region (PDF)
4 Salt Targets l Food Standards Agency
5 The strides to Reduce Salt Intake in Brazil: Have we Done Enough?
6 Sodium Reduction in Communities Program (SRCP) l DHDSP l CDC
7 Consumers Update > How FDA Helps You Make Healthy Food Choices