It’s not very often U.S. health trends move in a positive direction, but a new study has found that the amount of sodium in processed and packaged foods has decreased over the past 15 years.
From 2000 to 2014 the amount of sodium in food products decreased by 12 percent, according to data compiled and analyzed by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, Australia.
Their findings were published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Consuming an excess of sodium is a main contributor to high blood pressure, which in turn leads to heart disease — the No. 1 leading cause of death in the U.S. — and stroke, the fourth-leading cause of death.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends people consume about 2,300 mg of sodium per day per day, but Americans — starting from as young as 2 years old — typically consume 3,400 mg per day, based on 2012 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While sodium intake does not necessarily, directly relate to salt intake, the CDC says that 90 percent of sodium intake is in the form of salt. About 75 percent of consumed sodium comes from processed and packaged foods and food in restaurants, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The study, titled “Sodium Reduction in U.S. Households’ Packaged Food and Beverage Purchases, 2000-2014,” includes an analysis of 172,042 U.S. households and 1.5 million food products, with participants using a bar code scanner to log their food purchases and the nutritional values.
Among the findings, researchers observed that sodium levels dropped in 10 of the most popular food items, which included condiments, sauces and dips; mixed dishes, including frozen and microwave meals; salty snacks; bread; cheese; soup; processed meat; grain-based desserts; vegetables; and breakfast cereals.
The study found that the amount of sodium in products among U.S. households decreased by about 400 mg/day — which corresponds to a decrease in the amount of sodium purchased daily per person from 2,363 mg/day to 1,967 mg/day.
The food product that showed the greatest decrease in sodium was among condiments, sauces, dips and salty snacks, with sodium levels declining by more than 100 mg. The data also show that U.S. households decreased the amount of beverage purchases, which added to a decline in sodium levels among household groceries.
However, the researchers pointed out that over the 15-year period of the study, less than 2 percent of U.S. households “had total packaged food and beverage purchases with optimal sodium density.”
“The slow rate of decline in sodium from store-bought foods suggests that more concerted sodium reduction efforts are necessary in the United States,” the authors concluded. “Future studies are needed to examine sodium trends by race/ethnicity and income to identify vulnerable subpopulations that further interventions should target.”
Jen Poti, the study’s lead researcher, said the study supports the need for a concrete and national sodium-reduction plan. Last June the Food and Drug Administration proposed voluntary targets for the food industry to reduce sodium, but Ms. Poti said that is not enough.
“At the end of the day, the food industry is a business; they need to keep their profits up. So having national sodium targets for the levels of sodium in different food categories in the U.S. will kind of level the playing field,” she said in an interview with The Washington Times.
“We can’t just place the burden on the consumer to make changes in their behaviors and food choices, especially in the face of a food supply that really has a lot of sodium,” she said.
In 2009, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Services launched the National Sodium Reduction Initiative (NSRI), with commitments by 100 city, state and public health associations to work in partnership with private companies to reduce sodium in packaged, processed foods and in restaurants by 25 percent by 2014.
By 2012, 21 of 30 companies that committed to the NSRI met their sodium-reduction goals, according to a blog post for the American Heart Association written by Elizabeth Leonard, the Healthy Eating Project Coordinator for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.