NEWS

How Realistic Are the FDA's New Sodium Guidelines?

A salt shaker on a table.

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Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released new voluntary sodium guidelines for the food industry.
  • Most Americans get sodium from processed foods and chain restaurants, not from foods that they cook at home. Getting too much sodium can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney disease.
  • The FDA's goal is for Americans to consume 12% less sodium over the next 2.5 years.

Americans eat almost 50% more sodium per day than is recommended. Most of the excess sodium comes from restaurant meals and processed foods, not from foods that people make at home.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized that the food industry is a big reason why Americans are getting too much sodium. To address the problem, the FDA has released voluntary sodium guidelines for food manufacturers and restaurants.

According to an FDA press release, the new guidelines aim to reduce the average American's daily sodium intake from "approximately 3,400 milligrams (mg) to 3,000 mg per day"—or about a 12% reduction—"over the next 2.5 years."

Sodium and Your Health

One of the main risks of eating too much sodium is that it can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension), which can increase your chances of having heart disease or stroke.

"I believe that many consumers do want to eat healthy to decrease their risk of disease," Nancy Farrell Allen, MS, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Verywell.

However, without help from the food industry, that's not easy to do. "Eating out at a restaurant is difficult," says Farrell Allen. "Prepared foods in restaurants are notably higher in sodium, whether fast food or sit-down."

Farrell Allen sees convenience and restaurant foods as the biggest barriers for people who want to limit their salt intake. If the food industry follows the new FDA targets, it will be easier for people to reduce how much salt they eat.

How Much Salt Is Enough?

Sodium is not all bad; in fact, it's an essential nutrient. According to the FDA, humans need sodium to "maintain a balance of body fluids and keep muscles and nerves running smoothly."

One teaspoon of table salt has 2,300mg of sodium.

To get the health benefits of sodium, The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults limit sodium intake to 2,300mg per day. Children ages 14 and younger should limit their intake even more.

However, table salt is not the only source of sodium. "When a lot of people hear sodium, they think salt," Kailey Proctor MPH, RDN, CSO, a board-certified oncology dietitian at Leonard Cancer Institute with Mission Hospital, tells Verywell.

If you do not salt your food, you still could be getting more sodium than you need, as most of the sodium in your diet is probably coming from processed foods.

Kailey Proctor MPH, RDN, CSO

It is really exciting that the FDA is finally starting to tackle this considering that heart disease is one of the biggest killers in the U.S.

— Kailey Proctor MPH, RDN, CSO

Proctor says that when people eat a lot of processed foods, they are missing out on vitamins and minerals that they need. Since these foods are packed with sodium, people often consume more than the recommendation of 2,300mg of sodium per day.

"Sodium can greatly increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney disease," says Procter. "We don't want too much sodium in our diet, so it is really exciting that the FDA is finally starting to tackle this considering that heart disease is one of the biggest killers in the U.S."

Will the Food Industry Change?

The FDA's new sodium guidelines are voluntary targets. Some companies might decide to adopt them, but others may not. While experts are happy to see a call for action, they know that it won't be easy for companies to adjust.

"I think there's going to be a lot of barriers with this. It's going to take time," says Proctor, adding that while companies are not required to make the change, that "hopefully, since it is a huge health goal of ours, the industry will begin to implement it."

While it might be a step toward better health, the industry may not view it as a wise business decision. Salt is a cheap way for food companies to make shelf-stable food that tastes good.

Kailey Proctor MPH, RDN, CSO

Hopefully, since it is a huge health goal of ours, the industry will begin to implement it.

— Kailey Proctor MPH, RDN, CSO

"I think the food industry might struggle for a little bit trying to find ways to keep their product at the same price but also keeping the flavor," says Proctor.

The FDA guidelines give the industry 2.5 years to reach the sodium reduction targets. After that point, the FDA plans to issue new targets to reduce Americans' sodium intake even more.

If the first target is met, the average American will still be consuming 3,000mg of sodium, which is 700mg more than the recommendation. While it might feel like a small step, it's still an important one. As Proctor puts it: "Something is always better than nothing."

Since the changes will be made by the food industry, it's also one less thing that consumers have to think about.

Will Food Taste Different?

Salt adds a lot of flavor to food. If the food industry adopts these guidelines, will people taste a difference in their favorite snacks?

"I definitely think people will notice," says Proctor. "12% is a good amount to notice in your diet. When you are used to having a lot of salt in your food, even if you cut back a little bit you're going to notice that taste difference."

Still, Proctor is hopeful that the benefits will outweigh the costs. "You'll feel better, there's less risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and chronic kidney disease," says Proctor. "There's just so much benefit here."

Kailey Proctor MPH, RDN, CSO

When you are used to having a lot of salt in your food, even if you cut back a little bit you're going to notice that taste difference.

— Kailey Proctor MPH, RDN, CSO

Experts will be interested to see how the guidelines will be implemented. While Americans will likely adapt to the taste of the lower salt options, it will still be a challenging adjustment for the food industry.

"Most people aren't going to want to pay more for something that doesn't taste as good or what they are used to eating," says Proctor. "If you increase the price, that's going to be another barrier just to eating well in general."

Proctor hopes that the industry will be able to "find an alternative that keeps the price the same and increases the flavor or keeps the flavor the same." While it's probably "going to be a little trial and error," Proctor says that it's "so exciting that this is happening and it's finally being addressed."

What This Means For You

As the food industry adopts the new FDA guidelines to help Americans lower their sodium intake, you might notice that some of your favorite snacks and foods taste a little different.

However, since most Americans are getting more than the recommended amount of salt in their diets, and high sodium intake is linked to conditions like high blood pressure, the change will have a positive effect on your health.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To improve nutrition and reduce the burden of disease, FDA issues food industry guidance for voluntarily reducing sodium in processed and packaged foods. Updated October 13, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sodium. Updated September 21, 2021.

  3. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Sodium in your diet. Updated June 8, 2021.

  4.  U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th edition. Updated December 2020.

  5. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for industry: voluntary sodium reduction goals. Updated October 13, 2021.