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Salt is used to enhance flavor as well as increase the shelf life of food. Getty Images
  • Federal regulators are asking companies to reduce the amount of sodium in products over the next 2 1/2 years.
  • Experts say that might be difficult to accomplish because salt makes food taste better and gives products a longer shelf life.
  • Nutritionists say you can reduce the amount of salt in your diet by cooking meals from scratch using fresh ingredients.

People in the United States consume too much salt, but most of it doesn’t come from a shaker.

Instead, sodium added into processed foods makes up the bulk of our salt consumption.

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking companies to voluntarily meet new target criteria to cut the amount of added sodium in food.

The agency reported that the average person in the United States consumes around 3,400 milligrams of salt per day, well above the 2,300 milligrams per day recommended by the FDA.

Of that, 70 percent comes from sodium added during commercial food production and commercial food preparation.

As such, the new guidance encourages manufacturers to modestly reduce the amount of sodium in their products and encourages producers to not exceed a maximum amount in various products from cream cheese to deli meats to popcorn to pizza.

“This guidance aims to help Americans reduce average sodium intake to 3,000 mg/day by encouraging food manufacturers, restaurants, and food service operations to gradually reduce sodium in foods over time,” FDA officials write in their recommendations.

“Although we recognize that a reduction to 3,000 mg/day still would be higher than the recommended sodium limit of 2,300 mg/day, the 2.5-year goals are intended to balance the need for broad and gradual reductions in sodium and what is publicly known about technical and market constraints on sodium reduction and reformulation,” FDA officials added.

One purpose of sodium in processed foods is somewhat apparent: Like sugar and fat, it makes food taste better.

There are other uses, but the way salt is slipped into processed and prepared foods is often under the radar, making its way into all kinds of foods we don’t think of as “salty.”

“Salt is added to food as a preservative to make it last longer and be ‘shelf-stable.’ [It] also acts as an antimicrobial agent (e.g., think canned goods),” said Taylor C. Wallace, PhD, the CEO at the Think Healthy Group and an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University in Virginia. “Sodium also provides flavor to foods without adding calories that is hard to mimic.”

That poses challenges for food producers.

“If you take sodium out of a food, you decrease the food’s flavor, shelf-life, and safety,” Wallace told Healthline. “Just taking sodium out of foods isn’t as simple as it sounds because you need to consider all three of these major issues.”

The FDA is seeking these reductions over a 2 1/2-year period, which Wallace says is the right approach if the industry follows their recommendations.

“To effectively reduce the population’s preference for high-sodium foods, you need to slowly decrease the amount added to foods uniformity across the food supply (for example, it won’t work to reduce it in potato chips if you don’t do the same with soups, frozen dinners, and peanuts). To be successful, it is an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of thing,” he said.

But how effective are voluntary recommendations on getting food producers and preparers to change their ways?

“Most national brands typically comply or at least attempt to,” Wallace said. “The issue typically arises with smaller brands that ignore the guidance as a way of gaining a competitive edge. Guidance documents are nonbinding, meaning that there is no legal precedent for compliance.”

But other experts are not so sure.

“The salt content of fast food went up by 23 percent in the early 2000s in spite of knowledge that high levels of salt are harmful,” Joan Ifland, PhD, a nutrition counselor and self-described processed food addiction expert, told Healthline.

“Can you imagine how effective it would have been for the FDA to issue voluntary guidance for the amount of extra nicotine that could be added to cigarettes? Big Tobacco would have ignored it because the business model depends on making products addictive,” she said.

But instead of waiting for food producers to comply, consumers can take control of their sodium intake by cooking fresh food as much as they’re able.

“Quick, safe meals are ground beef patty, sweet potato, and raw vegetable salad with a drizzle of virgin olive oil,” Ifland said. “Make a bunch of the patties and bake several sweet potatoes at the same time, so you only need to reheat them at the next meal. You can fry fish, shrimp, ground turkey, or pork chops just as quickly.”