05/20/2016 02:37 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016


Nancy Brown CEO, American Heart Association

You’ve heard it for years: Cut down on sodium. The more salt in your diet, the more problems for your body.

The science behind this could fill a library. The dangers of ignoring it could fill a morgue.

Chilling as that sounds, we know that too much sodium can cause high blood pressure, and we know that high blood pressure is a primary cause of heart disease and stroke, the two leading causes of death in the world. Nearly a billion people globally, and about 80 million American adults, have high blood pressure. If you’re not already in that group, be aware that 90 percent of us will develop this condition at some point in our lives. The really scary part is that millions of Americans have high blood pressure, but haven’t checked their BP, so they don’t even know it!

Sodium is sneaky, too. It goes way beyond the salt shaker. Nearly 80 percent of the salt we consume comes from some of the processed and prepared foods we buy at grocery stores and restaurants.

Fortunately, the outlook is encouraging. Making it possible for us to control the salt in our diets – and, thus, improve our health – is a priority for the people and organizations who can truly effect change.

In Washington, D.C., the Food and Drug Administration is expected to ask the food industry to join together to voluntarily reduce sodium in processed products and restaurant foods. We applaud the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others, including the Congress members who remain steadfast in their defense and support of sound nutrition policy.

Several major food companies have climbed aboard, too. We’ve seen announcements about plans to lower the amount of sodium in their products – and some already have done it.

To fully grasp why sodium control is such a crucial issue, let’s go over some basics.

Sodium is a mineral that’s essential for life. It helps your body control fluid balance, affects muscle function and nerve impulses. However, as is often the case, too much of a good thing can be a problem.

The average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day. That’s more than double the 1,500 milligrams recommended by my organization, the American Heart Association. It’s also way above the maximum 2,300 milligrams recommended by our government in its 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

What happens when you consume too much sodium?

Water gets pulled into your blood vessels, raising the volume of blood flowing through those vessels. To put the science into everyday terms, imagine turning up the supply of water to your garden hose. The tube can handle it for a while, but over time the added pressure will cause the rubber to expand, thinning it out until eventually it can be damaged or even crack.

Switching back to the body, high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels so they can’t widen to provide all the blood flow you need. It can speed the buildup of plaque, which further blocks blood flow. It also forces the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body. And if that leads to heart failure or kidney failure, that can be a terrible outcome – one you certainly want to avoid.

Only about 11 percent of our sodium intake comes from salt we add while cooking or eating. About 12 percent comes naturally in foods. The rest? All added before the food ever gets to us. Sodium is used to add flavor and as a preservative, either to keep food safe, enhance the color or to give it a firmer texture. These are reasonable uses; again, the problem comes from too much of a good thing.

It’s also worth noting that evidence shows there are specific populations that should not lower sodium intake, such as those regularly working in extreme heat or suffering from a specific illness. Still, these are the exceptions to the rule, which we know to be that, in general, Americans need to reduce sodium consumption.

A survey conducted by the American Heart Association found that 75 percent of adults in the U.S. preferred less sodium in processed and restaurant foods. Major players in the food industry are among the many climbing aboard the bandwagon.

  • Within the last month, Nestle, Mars Food, Unilever and PepsiCo announced support of FDA’s plan for voluntary sodium targets.
  • Last year, General Mills announced that it already had cut up to 20 percent in many products. Domino’s, Schwan’s and Revolution Foods are among others moving in this direction. Aramark has committed to a 20 percent reduction by 2020.
  • Subway, which in 2011 was among the first major quick-serve restaurant company to voluntary cut back on sodium, continues to offer lower-salt sandwiches.

The biggest culprits in our diet may surprise you: bread and rolls; cold cuts and meats; pizza; poultry; soup; and sandwiches. After seeing such a list, you may not be surprised to learn that, just like adults, nine in 10 children get way too much sodium.

The American Heart Association is no lone drummer banging the anti-sodium beat. We’re part of a marching band of prestigious organizations all aligned behind reducing sodium intake from the dangerously high levels now consumed. This list of heavy hitters includes: the Department of Health and Human Services; the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the World Health Organization; the American Medical Association; the American Academy of Pediatrics; the American College of Cardiology; the  Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; the American Society of Nephrology; the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the American Society for Hypertension; the Pan American Health Organization; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the Americas; American Public Health Association; Institute of Medicine and more.

These organizations have studied what happens when people consume too much sodium and all concluded that we need to reduce salt to healthy levels.

This is not just a U.S. issue, either. In fact, as a country, we are late to the sodium-reduction movement. Our neighbors to the north and south — Canada and Mexico — are among the 50-plus countries that have adopted voluntary or mandatory reductions in the salt content of certain foods. The United Kingdom has been doing this for years.

So, why does opposition still exist? Why are people saying that all these big, prominent, science-based organizations are making too big a deal out of this?

I encourage you to investigate how and why they came to their conclusions. Feel free to study ours, too. I also recommend comparing the volume and breadth of people on each side of the fight. I believe you will come away ready to pledge to eat less salt and willing to lend your voice to the chorus seeking to change the way Americans think about and consume sodium.

We’re not saying the rise in sodium intake is the only reason why one in three Americans have high blood pressure, but we feel quite strongly that it’s a major reason for it.

The rise in our daily sodium intake and the massive amounts of sodium in our food supply also didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken years to get to this point.

All the American Heart Association, some leaders in the food industry and leading science-based organizations are saying is, let’s try going in the other direction to see what happens.

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