Reducing sodium in packaged foods could reduce disease and save lives
The (WHO) recommends reducing the population-wide average sodium intake by 30 percent by 2025.
It’s not a secret that diets high in sodium come with huge health risks, including high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke, heart disease, stomach cancer, and chronic kidney disease. The American Heart Association estimates that processed, packaged, and restaurant meals make up 75 percent of daily sodium intake in the United States.
In an effort to combat this, World Health Organization (WHO) recommends reducing the population-wide average sodium intake by 30 percent by 2025 in order to combat negative health outcomes. This limits total daily sodium intake to about per person to about 2,000 milligrams a day per person, compared to the estimated 3,400 mg of sodium consumed by the average American every day. The WHO also released guidance for sodium levels in food categories that are the biggest contributors to sodium intake such as processed meats, bread, and sauces in 2021.
Now, a study published January 10 in the journal Hypertension offers even more evidence of the positive health outcomes that sodium reduction could have. The paper details a voluntary effort by the Australian government to reformulate 27 packaged food categories across the continent. It found that removing some of the sodium from packaged foods could save about 1,700 lives per year and prevent nearly 7,000 annual diagnoses of heart disease, kidney disease, and stomach cancer in Australia.
“We had previously modeled the potential impact of the Australian program,” said the study’s co-lead author Kathy Trieu, lead author of the study and a research fellow in food policy at The George Institute for Global Health, and a lecturer at the University of New South Wales, in a statement. “In this study, we wanted to estimate the potential number of additional premature deaths, new cases of disease and years lived with disability that may be averted with the WHO sodium benchmarks, which are above and beyond the Australian government’s sodium reformulation targets.”
[Related: What happens if you eat too much salt?]
The team applied the same statistical model used in their previous study to estimate the potential impact of extending the Australian plan to include all of the 58 packaged food categories in the WHO’s benchmarks. They used national data from 2011 to 2012 on the amount of sodium in the food, how much was eaten nationwide, and sales data. Next, the team used published statistics about the relationship between sodium intake and high blood pressure, to calculate the potential effects of sodium reduction on rates of cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for both conditions.
“Our findings indicate that compliance with WHO benchmarks compared with Australia’s current sodium targets may result in substantial health gains and prevent more than three times as many deaths and new cases of disease each year,” said Trieu. Trieu added that including more packaged food products and stricter sodium targets may have had a greater impact.
The team says that some of the limitations of this study include needing more recent data and that estimates of disease burden may be less accurate than estimates of more easily measured outcomes such as death.
According to the CDC, some ways to reduce sodium intake include buying fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables with no salt or sauce added, comparing the amount of sodium in different products by reading Nutrition Facts labels, and limiting sauces, mixes, and instant product.