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New Lower Guidelines for Salt Consumption

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2004

So says a long-awaited nutrition report, released Wednesday by the Institute of Medicine, that sets the nation's recommended intake levels of key nutrients.

Heart specialists praised the new salt recommendation while food manufacturers deemed it unrealistic. Three-quarters of Americans' daily salt intake comes from sodium hidden in common processed and restaurant foods, such as frozen dinners and spaghetti sauce.

While factors such as weight and exercise play a role, salt and blood pressure go hand-in-hand: Eat too much, blood pressure rises. Eat less, it drops. Some 50 million Americans have high blood pressure -- putting them at risk for heart attacks, strokes and kidney disease -- and another 45 million are pre-hypertensive.

Food labels today set daily sodium consumption at 2,400 milligrams, the equivalent of a heaping teaspoon of salt.

The new recommendation is that most people get just 1,500 milligrams a day.

Yet women today eat, on average, twice that amount, men even more.

"We don't have our heads in the sand on this one," said Dr. Lawrence Appel, who co-authored the guidelines for the institute, an independent scientific organization that advises the government. "We realize where we are is quite a distance from where we should be ... and there are commercial interests that don't want this to happen."

"People can cook and prepare Western-style diets that are at that level" even though "it will take work right now," said Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

Food makers countered that consumers will give up when faced with such strict levels.

The Institute of Medicine report:
* Lists 2,300 milligrams of sodium as a maximal upper limit for the average adult's good health, but stresses that eating more than 1,500 is not recommended for anyone. In fact, because blood pressure rises with age, it says people over 50 should strive to eat just 1,300 milligrams a day, and those over 70 just 1,200 milligrams.

* Urges Americans to eat more potassium -- 4,700 milligrams a day, roughly double current consumption. Potassium lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of kidney stones and bone loss. It is found in bananas, spinach, cantaloupe and numerous other fruits and vegetables; food sources are better than supplements.

* Says consumers shouldn't bother with the old adage "drink at least eight glasses of water a day." The average healthy person gets plenty of fluid from a mix of beverages -- even those with caffeine -- as well as the water content of fruits and other foods.

For sodium, "These are certainly healthy goals," said Dr. Daniel Jones of the American Heart Association. "They will be a challenge for individuals to achieve, but they can be achieved."

The American Public Health Association last year began pushing for the sodium in processed foods to be halved within 10 years. The new guidelines mean "the food industry really has to take this issue much more seriously now," said APHA's Dr. Stephen Havas of the University of Maryland.

If the new level makes it onto food labels, consumers could see significant changes. For example, a popular brand of canned clam chowder that provides 36 percent of daily sodium under today's guidelines would provide 57 percent of the new level.

The Food and Drug Administration plans to update numerous nutrient levels on food labels, based in part on Institute of Medicine advice. But the process will take years, and food makers will oppose a salt change.

"One size does not fit all when it comes to sodium intake," said Robert Earl of the National Food Processors Association, who contends the lower level brings no benefit to healthy people who aren't salt-sensitive.

Suddenly dropping sodium levels would hurt foods' taste, but companies are hunting for new recipes to provide a gradual decline, said the grocery manufacturers' Childs. Canned foods today contain 40 percent less sodium than a few years ago, she said.  

Source: Diabetes In

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