Health specialists urge Americans to reduce salt intake

As turkey day approaches, look to lower sodium

Email|Print| Text size + By Lauran Neergaard
Associated Press / November 20, 2007

WASHINGTON - Think cooking the perfect Thanksgiving dinner is stressful? Something else is far more likely to raise your blood pressure: salt hidden in all those goodies.

Do not blame the chef. Much of that salt was hidden from him or her, too.

Americans eat nearly two teaspoons of salt daily, more than double what they need for good health, and it is not because of the table salt-shaker. Three-fourths of that sodium comes inside common processed foods such as stuffing mix, gravy, and pumpkin pie.

Even raw turkey, which is naturally low in sodium, sometimes is injected with salt water before it reaches the store, a lot more salt than a home cook would sprinkle on. One has to read the brand's fine print to know.

Now public health specialists are pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to require food makers to cut the sodium. In a hearing set for next week, they will call government intervention crucial to fighting heart disease.

"There's just a growing scientific consensus that current levels of salt in the diet are one of the biggest health threats to the public," said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that filed the FDA petition that led to the meeting.

"This is truly urgent," added Dr. Stephen Havas of the American Medical Association. "We need to act."

The AMA says cutting in half the sodium in processed and restaurant foods within 10 years could save 150,000 lives annually.

The grocery industry knows there is a problem. Food makers and the Center for Science in the Public Interest put aside their differences last month for an unprecedented, closed-door meeting on how to reduce sodium. And the salt content of many foods has inched down in recent decades.

But manufacturers contend they do not have tasty ways to make deeper cuts in salt, and fear consumer backlash if they slash it.

"There's a tremendous need for investment by government and industry to come up with salt alternatives," said Robert Earl of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "There are just very few that exist that work and perform well in foods."

That is an excuse, contends Havas. Scientific studies show people get accustomed to less salt in months, and then usually find their old foods too salty.

One in three US adults has high blood pressure, and almost 1 billion people do worldwide. Hypertension in turn is a leading cause of heart attacks, strokes, and kidney failure. And while being overweight and inactive raises blood pressure, too much salt is also a big culprit.

Government guidelines set 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day as the safe upper limit. The Institute of Medicine says 1,500 milligrams a day, or a little less for older adults, is enough to regulate the body's fluid balance, the mineral's job.

Yet the average American consumes between 3,300 and 4,000 milligrams of sodium a day.

Thanksgiving dinner can easily reach those limits. Stuffing can harbor up to 600 milligrams of sodium a serving, plus 300 for gravy. If you bought the salt-added turkey, plan on 490 milligrams. A biscuit can mean 350, although a dinner roll might have half that. Pumpkin pie does not seem salty, but one popular brand has 300 milligrams a slice.

Cooking from scratch can slash those numbers. Homemade cornbread for stuffing, for example, has little salt, and there are reduced-sodium broths for gravy.

But many processed foods do not need all their salt.

"We could fairly easily take 18 to 20 percent out of food without consumers knowing," says Patty Packard, nutrition manager at giant ConAgra Foods.

ConAgra has started doing that, beginning with brands popular with children. Chef Boyardee went from an average of 1,100 milligrams of sodium per serving in 2003 to 900 milligrams today. Over four years, ConAgra estimates it has removed 2.8 million pounds of salt from products, including children's brands, Banquet, and Marie Callender's, without consumer complaint, possibly because it has not publicized the change.

"We know consumer perception is, if it's lower in sodium it doesn't taste good," Packard said. "If you told people . . . they're going, 'Oooh, what'd you do to my Chef Boyardee?' "

Technology also can help. Better ways to freeze vegetables brought the sodium level of frozen peas down from almost 500 in the 1960s to less than 100, unless you add high-salt butter sauce.

But other foods have gotten saltier. Between 2004 and 2007, average sodium in sliced cheese rose 35 percent, and frozen pizza saw a 23 percent jump.

The FDA will not say how quickly it will decide whether to intervene or let the industry gradually cut the salt on its own.

"Regulation is one option, but it may not be the best one," said the FDA food-additive chief, Dr. Laura Tarantino.

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