July 7, 2010

Naughty Carbs, Hidden Salt

Do you know where your salt is? Even those who watch salt intake tend to eat way too much salt.

According to new CDC data, released in their glumly titled Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on June 25th, many Americans are consuming twice the amount of salt that that is recommended. As diabetes, obesity, and blood pressure continue to rise, perhaps these data shouldn’t come as too much of a shock.

A whopping 77% of Americans’ salt intake comes not from table salt or use in home-cooked meals, but from processed and restaurant foods.

Using data from the years 2005-2006, the report finds that on average Americans eat 3,466 mg of sodium per day, which is over twice that of the recommended 1,500 mg/day for many people. Though the government and the American Heart Association say that 2,300 mg/day is ok for most healthy individuals, those with high blood pressure, middle-aged people, and African-Americans are advised to limit it to 1,500 mg/day – and these groups make up about 70% of the population.

The study asked people to recall what they’d eaten over the last 24 hours, and the researchers analyzed this data to arrive at an average value for total salt intake as well as understand which food groups were contributing to the numbers. They found that a whopping 77% of Americans’ salt intake comes not from table salt or use in home-cooked meals, but from processed and restaurant foods. (At-home salt use makes up only about 10% of the total.)

The report also showed that grains make up almost 37% of total salt consumption: though “grains” may sound healthy, this category actually consists of “grain-based frozen foods and soups,” as well as American staples like pizza, cookies, and other naughty carbs.

Meats, including poultry and fish, made up the second-highest component of salt intake, at almost 28%. The report says that because one wouldn’t normally expect meat to lead to such high salt intake, this phenomenon is “likely because the category includes lunchmeats and sausages,” which are notoriously high in added sodium. Therefore, processed foods, including “grains” and “meats”, make up almost two-thirds of our average salt intake.

The report found that only 9.6% of Americans are getting the recommended amount of salt. "Sodium has become so pervasive in our food supply that it's difficult for the vast majority of Americans to stay within recommended limits," says lead author Janelle Peralez Gunn in the CDC news release. "Public health professionals, together with food manufacturers, retailers and health care providers, must take action now to help support people's efforts to reduce their sodium consumption." The CDC also points out that too much sodium can cause high blood pressure, which “is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, the first and third leading causes of death among adults in the United States.”

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