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Reducing Salt to Protect against Heart Attacks and Strokes

03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Americans consume roughly twice the recommended limit of salt each day, causing widespread high blood pressure and placing millions at risk of heart attack and stroke. But only 11% of the sodium in Americans' diets comes from their own saltshakers; nearly 80% is added to foods before they are sold.

The National Salt Reduction Initiative

The National Salt Reduction Initiative, a New York City-led partnership of cities, states and national health organizations, today unveiled its proposed targets to guide a voluntary reduction of salt levels in packaged and restaurant foods.

Through a year of technical consultation with food industry leaders, the National Salt Reduction Initiative has developed specific targets to help companies reduce the salt levels in 61 categories of packaged food and 25 classes of restaurant food. Some popular products already meet these targets, a clear indication that food companies can substantially lower sodium levels while still offering foods that consumers enjoy. Additional comments on targets will be solicited this month, and the initiative will adopt final targets this spring.

Saving Lives & Billions in Health Care Expenses

The goal of the initiative is to cut the salt in packaged and restaurant foods by 25% over five years, an achievement that would reduce the nation's salt intake by 20% and prevent many thousands of premature deaths. The sodium in salt is a major contributor to high blood pressure, which in turn causes heart attack and stroke, the nation's leading causes of preventable death. These conditions cause 23,000 deaths in New York City alone each year, more than 800,000 nationwide, and cost Americans billions in health care expenses.

"Consumers can always add salt to food, but they can't take it out," said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. "At current levels, the salt in our diets poses health risks for people with normal blood pressure, and it's even riskier for the 1.5 million New Yorkers with high blood pressure. If we can reduce the sodium levels in packaged and restaurant foods, we will give consumers more choice about the amount of salt they eat, and reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke in the process."

The recommended daily limit for sodium intake is 1,500 mg for most adults (including anyone who is black or over 40) and 2,300 mg for others. Some food products, such as deli-meat sandwiches, pack that much sodium in one serving. But much of the salt in Americans' diets comes from breads, muffins and other foods that don't taste salty.

"Excess sodium greatly increases the chance of developing hypertension, heart disease and stroke," said Dr. J. James Rohack, president of the American Medical Association. "The AMA has long supported a reduction of sodium in processed foods, fast food products and restaurant meals as a means to lower sodium intake and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease among Americans."

International Efforts Underway

Other countries are already reducing salt in packaged and restaurant foods. In the United Kingdom, a similar collaboration between the food industry and government has already resulted in salt reductions of 40% or more in some food products. Canada is actively addressing the issue, and Australia, Finland, Ireland, and New Zealand have all launched large scale, countrywide initiatives to help reduce the salt in their foods.

Big Food Companies Reducing Salt Quietly & Gradually

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal reports that companies find consumers respond better when sodium-reduction isn't emphasized on labels:

Amid rising government pressure and consumer concern, food makers are taking a new tack in their long-running effort to sell products with less salt. Instead of offering foods labeled as low salt that few people eat, they are gradually reducing the salt from some of their most popular items--and not making a big fuss about it on the label...Chef Boyardee canned pasta will have decreased its sodium by about 35% over the course of five years without a word on the package.

Cardiovascular Disease is the Leading Cause of Death in U.S.

"The American Heart Association recognizes the potential benefit to many Americans of reducing sodium intake. Consuming too much sodium is associated with high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Reducing sodium in processed foods, which account for the majority of sodium consumption in the United States, could significantly decrease risks for cardiovascular disease, which remains the nation's leading cause of death," said Dr. Clyde Yancy, the association's president.

To get more information on the National Salt Reduction Initiative, go to: N.Y.C Department of Health

Cross-posted with www.americanfeast.com.