New goals for reduced sodium foods

I’m one of those weird people who never salts her food. But it’s not that I enjoy bland food – it's that I grew up without lots of salt in my diet. If you're a fan of sodium, take note of this trend: Salt consumption in the U.S. food supply is once again in the spotlight – most notably for how high intake levels correlate to high blood pressure, heart disease and other health problems.

Statistics from industry sources estimate that between 77-80 percent of salt in our diet comes from processed foods, while the remainder comes from our own saltshakers. Fittingly, the New York City Health Department is coordinating the National Salt Reduction Initiative to reduce salt intake by 20 percent over five years in packaged and restaurant food. 

Sodium goes around, comes around

This is not anything new, considering the huge reduced-sodium initiative of the 1970s, said Janice Johnson, Ph.D., applications leader, Cargill Salt. I spoke with her this week about NaCl for the upcoming January issue of Functional Ingredients, where we'll present our 2011 market speculations on the ingredient. Johnson has been with the company for seven years – six of which have been spent on reduced sodium ingredient alternatives.

"Back in the '70s, they [food manufacturers] basically had very few solutions, so a lot of products that came out into the market did not taste good," causing those stereotypes to linger today, she said. This is not unlike most unfortunate fashion decisions; health food fads never go out of style – they simply come back in varying degrees of force.

Johnson said a lot of manufacturers today are learning lessons from the '70s (platforms, anyone?). Plus, there's a wider variety of sodium alternatives (for example, potassium chloride) that give products their salty flavor and retain food preservation properties – while still reducing overall sodium levels.

Your salt consumption cheat sheet

As you're trolling the grocery store and waiting for salt content to reduce in your favorite foods, how do you know what to buy until then?

Current USDA dietary guidelines recommend that healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 mgs (approximately 1 tsp of salt) of sodium daily. When shopping, that means keeping an eye out for any one of the following five FDA-approved phrases to figure out if that frozen meal or soup can contains an acceptable sodium level.

•  Sodium free: product contains 5 mgs or less of sodium per serving

•  Very low sodium: 35 mgs or less of sodium per serving

•  Low sodium: 140 mgs or less of sodium per serving

•  Reduced sodium: the product's usual sodium level was reduced by at least 25 percent

•  Unsalted or no salt added: no salt added during processing; however, the product may still contain sodium

Although I'm optimistic that reduced-sodium food will taste better than it did during my childhood, I'm still confused (and a little paranoid) about its consumption. I wonder if this latest initiative will stick, or if we'll end up with another public backlash on loss of flavor. Plus, will the National Salt Reduction Initiative be able to make a lasting impression in the participating cities, states and companies? I hope it doesn't turn into an outlier, like a write-in candidate when it comes time for reelection. 

In the meantime, I’ll avoid processed foods whenever possible and limit eating out throughout the week. Paranoia aside, it's important to remember that sodium is essential for life and our bodies can't live without it. Maybe it's time the saltshaker and me made up.

What's your relationship with salt like? How do you monitor consumption? Leave a comment.

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