The FDA finally gave the food industry a strong incentive today to cool it with the insane amount of salt it crams into what people eat. The agency has long tsk-tsked Americans for their sodium intake, noting that it’s linked to a variety of health problems, but this move marks the first major step by the government to curb salt content at the source. It’s a set of guidelines that have been in the works since 2011, and, while technically voluntary, the idea is they’ll help shame Big Food manufacturers and chain restaurants in particular into using less sodium. “Today’s announcement is about putting power back in the hands of consumers,” the FDA says, “so that they can better control how much salt is in the food they eat and improve their health.”
Right now, the average American eats 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, about 50 percent more than the 2,300-milligram limit the FDA recommends. Consumer advocates applaud the new guidelines for offering people a reliable measure of how salty something is, a benchmark that hasn’t existed until now. (In its announcement, the FDA notes it’s kind of dumb how one salad dressing can contain 150 milligrams of sodium while another has 2,000.) The government says the guidelines amount to a “a common system for defining and measuring progress on reducing sodium,” and would apply to most processed and prepared foods, which the FDA divides into roughly 150 categories, each with a corresponding sodium-level recommendation.
According to the agency, most salt “comes from processed and prepared foods, not the saltshaker” — or, put another way, over 70 percent of the sodium Americans eat is in their food before it ever reaches the table, so there’s not much they can do to reduce it anyway. However, if these voluntary guidelines guilt enough companies into curbing the excessive salt levels currently in their foods, the FDA thinks that, in turn, will put a good dent in Americans’ heinous sodium-intake levels. A decrease of as little as 400 milligrams a day could stop 32,000 heart attacks and 20,000 strokes each year, the government argues.