NEW YORK (AP) — Food companies are coming under renewed pressure to use less salt after U.S. regulators spelled out long-awaited guidelines aimed at reducing sodium levels in dozens of foods including condiments, cereals, french fries and potato chips.
The voluntary goals finalized Wednesday for 163 foods are intended to help lower the amount of salt people eat. A majority of the sodium in U.S. diets comes from packaged or restaurant foods — not the salt added to meals at home — making it hard for people to make changes on their own.
To get people used to eating less salt, the Food and Drug Administration said reductions have to be gradual and across the entire food supply so people don’t keep reaching for higher sodium options.
“By putting out the targets, that really helps to level the playing field across the industry,” said Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s food safety and nutrition division.
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This file photo shows the nutrition facts label on the side of a cereal box. Food companies are coming under renewed pressure to use less salt after U.S. regulators spelled out target sodium levels for dozens of foods including condiments, french fries and potato chips.
Over the next 2.5 years, the FDA’s target sodium levels aim to cut average intake by 12% — from 3,400 to 3,000 milligrams a day. That would still leave average intake above the federally recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams a day for people 14 and older. But the agency says it will monitor industry progress and keep issuing updated targets to bring levels closer to the recommended limit over time.
The FDA said it took into consideration industry feedback after issuing its draft guidance in 2016. Ketchup, mustard and hot sauce, for example, were split up and now have different targets. Another difference: The final guidance does not spell out a time frame for reaching longer-term targets.
“It’s a huge disappointment that the 10-year goal didn’t come out at the same time,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Mozaffarian said some food companies resisted reduced sodium targets, but that more scientific support has emerged for the federal guidance on sodium. In 2019, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine tied the recommended limit to a reduced risk of chronic disease. A recent study in China also found lower rates of stroke and major heart-related events among people using a salt substitute compared with those using regular salt.
Whether the targets are effective in pushing the industry to lower sodium levels will hinge on how the FDA monitors progress and publicly communicates about it, Mozaffarian said.
In a statement, the National Restaurant Association said it provided feedback to the FDA’s draft guidance and that its member companies continue to provide options that address customer demand.
The American Frozen Food Institute said member companies have already been offering lower sodium options to meet consumer demand.
Even though the guidance is voluntary, companies might feel pressure to make changes to avoid stricter regulatory action, said Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has called for mandatory sodium standards. “If it turns out that the impact is not what we would hope, I think it’s back to the drawing board, and mandatory cuts are on the table,” he said.
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Unfortunately, Americans are notorious for not making the healthiest eating choices. Research has shown that eating healthy isn’t a series of diet-centered choices, but rather the aggregated results of small habits performed consistently. That’s where other cultures come in. Some places around the world such as Okinawa and Sardinia are famous for the longevity of their residents, and Americans can take some cues from their practices around eating, cooking and more. If you’re looking to shake up your routine, consider incorporating some of these healthy eating habits from other cultures around the world.
A 2016 report named Iceland the healthiest country in the world. While that measure was based on many factors, the country’s diet high in fresh fish likely contributed. People in Iceland consume an average of 250 grams of seafood per day, according to the United Nations, compared to 60 grams in the U.S, meaning Icelanders are getting lots more heart-health boosting omega-3 fatty acids. According to the American Heart Association, omega-3 fatty acids can reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke and death from coronary heart disease.
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The same report ranked Singapore the second-healthiest country in the world, and the Bloomberg Global Health Index named Singapore the healthiest Asian country in 2017, in large part due to its extensive health care system. Another factor that could be contributing to its healthy rankings is the abundance of anti-inflammatory spices found in Singaporean cuisine, such as garlic, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric. More than 10,000 studies have shown that turmeric, also known as the “golden spice,” has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anticancer properties. While inflammation is a natural response and a necessary bodily defense, chronic inflammation can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
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Sweden, ranked as the third-healthiest country in the world, has made its national dietary guidelines as simple to follow as a traffic light. The country’s National Food Agency encourages Swedes to adhere to three ideas in equal parts: green means to eat more vegetables, yellow signals to switch to grains and red means to eat less red meat. A simple, balanced approach like this is easier to follow in the long run. Sweden also regularly ranks among the happiest countries in the world, partly due to low levels of stress, which can lead to headaches, shortness of breath and cardiovascular damage. There is a link between how we feel and what we eat, so managing stress also factors into healthy eating habits.
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Many Americans are familiar with the “food pyramid” introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture, but perhaps it's time to give a different perspective a spin. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recommend an inverted-pyramid style of food consumption, with whole grains on the top, and sugar and sweets on the bottom, with the whole thing powered by regular exercise on an axis of hydration, creating a “spinning top.” Japan is home to one of the densest populations of centenarians in the world: the island of Okinawa. Residents here also have less cancer, heart disease and dementia than Americans. They rely on fresh food, mostly vegetables, to surpass the lifespan of most of the world.
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While the “French paradox” — the idea that consuming large amounts of saturated fats like cheese can be offset by red wine at every meal — is actually too good to be true, Americans can still learn from French food habits. The large portion sizes common at American restaurants and dinner tables have been linked to unhealthy weight gain, while portions in France are smaller and people spend more time eating their meals. To savor your food and enjoy mealtimes, consider setting the table with smaller plates and eating lunch away from your desk.
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While France’s famous fermented dairy products like cheese and yogurt resulted from that population’s proximity to livestock, the microbial preservation practices of Asian populations were used more on grains and vegetables. The bacteria in fermented plant products contribute to healthy gut bacteria and ease inflammatory responses in the body, and in South Korea, kimchi, fermented cabbage and radish, is served at every meal. A 2017 study found that South Korea will likely have the highest worldwide life expectancy by 2030. Women are expected to live on average to the age of 91, while men are expected to live until age 84.
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In 2018, Spain joined Japan and Singapore on a list of countries expected to exceed an 85-year life span by 2040, in part due to adherence to the Mediterranean diet. This well-known diet emphasizes whole grains, fresh produce and little red meat. According to the UN, Spain consumes 300 grams of vegetables per capita per day, while on the other hand, Americans consume twice as much red meat as the global average. To boost your fruit and veggie intake, the American Heart Association recommends keeping a bowl of fruit handy and visible for snacking and adding a handful of frozen peas to rice or pasta.
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Sardinia’s men are some of the longest-living in the world because they are shepherds who regularly take long, gentle walks of 5 miles a day or more, on average. Their diet contains a lot of whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, and meat is only eaten occasionally. Beans, from soybeans to chickpeas to black beans, are a cornerstone of diets in the longest-living places in the world, and legume consumption is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. A 2004 study of people aged 70 and older across five countries around the world found that for every two tablespoons of beans a day that an individual consumed, they reduced their risk of dying by 7-8%.