The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Consumer Salt Perceptions

Consumer Salt Perceptions

Shoppers and Trends

May 23, 2010

There’s been a lot of talk about salt these days, and for good reason. After two years of committee meetings, research and deliberations, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), commissioned by Congress, finally released its report on sodium. The report focuses on reducing sodium intake in the United States through a gradual step-down approach – to allow for reformulation and taste-bud adjustment – and a call for the FDA to set national standards for sodium content in foods. 

But as straightforward as these recommendations seem, several major media outlets mistakenly reported the findings, stating that the FDA had already decided to take action based upon the IOM’s recommendations – which is not the case. While the FDA is currently reviewing the report and recommendations, no action to mandate sodium reduction has been issued by the government.

Consumers, understandably so, are as confused as ever. A recent study from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation found that nearly half of all consumers are not sure how much sodium a healthy individual should consume, or even what they personally consume. Many are unable to identify the amount per serving, based on food labels, for which they would consider a product to be high or low in sodium.

Consumer awareness of sodium is low in general, according to the IFIC study. And while people are taking steps to improve the healthfulness of their diets, limiting sodium is rarely one of those steps. Also, even though consumers believe that most of the sodium in their diet comes from processed or packaged foods, people trying to limit sodium intake focus primarily on reducing the amount of salt they add to foods when cooking or at the table. 

About six in 10 consumers are not at all concerned with their sodium consumption. However, studies have linked sodium intake with hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease – the number one killer in the U.S. The health consequences of excess sodium intake also include hypertension, renal stones, gastric cancer, asthma and osteoporosis. 

Of course, sodium isn’t all bad. It’s critical for proper functioning of the body. Sodium is important for proper nerve conduction, allows certain nutrients to go in and out of cells, assists in maintaining optimal blood pressure and is necessary for controlling fluid levels. Moderation, though, is key. Dairy, meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables naturally contain sodium, and canned vegetables, soups, deli or lunch meats, processed cheese, savory snacks and frozen foods can contain upwards of 1,000 mg of sodium per serving. So it’s easy to get excess sodium, even when you’re trying to cut back. (See our article on Dietary Sources of Sodium.)

The current recommended sodium intake is 2,300 mg per day or less, and future recommendations may bring this number closer to 1,500 mg per day. Average sodium intake is way above recommended levels at 3,400 mg per day, with men consuming slightly more sodium per day than woman. 

Despite consumers’ lack of knowledge about sodium, people are interested in learning more about sodium and health, and it is important that they understand the many dietary and lifestyle factors that, along with reducing sodium intake, can prevent and treat hypertension. Among the most effective strategies, says Ann Bouchoux, Senior Director of Nutrients Communication and Editor of the IFIC Foundation’s newsletter,Food Insight, is weight reduction, adoption of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, and engaging in regular physical activity. Additional approaches include increased intake of fruits and vegetables and careful reading of food labels – specifically front-of-pack labels advertising “no salt added” and “low sodium.”

Reformulated products are already hitting the shelves, and consumers, it seems, are taking note. In fact, a recent study from the Lempert Report found that 78% of shoppers have seen an increase in products marked as “low sodium.” Indeed, several major food manufacturers are currently working to reduce the sodium content of their foods including ConAgra Foods, Campbell Soup, and Kraft Foods. 

“The food industry has been reducing the amount of sodium in its products incrementally for some time and often quietly,” says Bouchoux, “because although some people seek out low-sodium products, others shy away from products advertised as ‘low’ or ‘reduced’ sodium. Retailers are joining the cause by offering lower sodium versions of their most popular items and continuing to work toward introducing a larger quantity of further-reduced options.”

“If we’re going to have the changes that we need to have made to get sodium down, we need to broaden the changes in the food environment to make eating less sodium reasonable and sustainable,” said Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, PhD, RD, Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, at last week’s National Dialogue on Sodium in Washington, D.C., hosted by the The American Society for Nutrition. “Think beyond the norm.”