From fruits and vegetables to canned soup and frozen meals, salt permeates the average American diet in almost every bite. The human body does need a certain amount of salt to regulate fluids — too little causes low blood pressure and fainting, says Rachel Furman, a registered dietitian with Aramark — but most people take in well above the recommended dose, which leads to health concerns such as high blood pressure. In Richmond, there's about a 40 percent rate of hypertension, says Dr. Domenic Sica, nephrology professor with Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems.
Sodium salts, found in saltshakers and takeout containers, are known to raise the body's blood pressure. Sodium makes the body retain fluid, which in turn makes the heart work harder to pump the extra fluid. According to the American Heart Association, sodium can also worsen swelling, cause shortness of breath and aid in weight gain. Salt is also a factor in the progression of the risk of kidney disease as a result of a higher amount of protein loss in the urine, Sica says.
Not all salt is bad, though. Potassium salts, found in fruits, vegetables, dairy products and chocolate, can actually lower blood pressure, the doctor adds. Salt substitutes also contain potassium salts, but Furman cautions against excessive use. "The person may consume too much potassium, and that could cause heart problems," she says.
According to dietary guidelines set in 2005 by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, people should ingest less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium — about a teaspoon of salt — per day. Blacks, people with hypertension, and folks who are middle-aged or older should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.
At least one group is trying to implement changes. In 2005, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest claimed that Americans' overuse of salt leads to the death of roughly 150,000 people each year. Because of these findings, the CSPI filed a lawsuit against the FDA over the regulation of salt that same year.
But this isn't the first time the CSPI had sued the FDA over salt. In 1983, the organization asked a federal district court to direct the FDA to declare sodium a food additive, which would have given the agency the authority to set limits for salt in foods. At the time, the FDA had just begun requiring sodium labeling on some packaged foods and felt the labeling should be given a chance to work. The recent lawsuit, however, argues that in the past 20 years, Americans' salt use hasn't declined and therefore the government agency should regulate the amount of salt in processed foods.
"There is no way the FDA can look at the science and say with a straight face that salt is ‘generally recognized as safe,' " Michael Jacobson, CSPI's executive director, said in 2005. "In fact, salt is generally recognized as unsafe, because it is a major cause of heart attacks and stroke. The federal government should require food manufacturers to gradually lower their sodium levels."
In November there was a hearing on salt regulation; the FDA will consider its options following a public comment period on March 28.