Sodium, Hiding in Plain Sight

By Jane E. Brody, Originally posted on New York Times, April 1, 2013

Centuries ago, salt was more valuable than gold, but today the condiment has fallen out of favor. Now we know that its main component, sodium, can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

A new report, prepared by experts from three leading universities, projects that a small, steady reduction of sodium in the American diet could save up to half a million lives over the next decade. And a more rapid reduction could save even more lives — as many as 850,000.

The Finns have already proved this projection. As described last month in The New England Journal of Medicine, since the early 1970s, when Finland launched a national campaign to reduce salt intake, daily consumption has dropped by 3,000 milligrams a day in men and women, with a corresponding decline in death rates from stroke and coronary heart disease of 75 to 80 percent.

In the last decade or so, many food producers have introduced low-sodium or reduced-sodium versions of popular products, including soups, vegetables, fish, sauces, cereals, nuts, dips and even chips. But Americans still consume far too much sodium — a third more, on average, than the amount recommended for an otherwise healthy person and more than twice the amount recommended for people with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease or kidney disease.

Sodium is an essential dietary element, but a mere 200 milligrams a day is all one needs for good health. The average American, however, takes in 3,300 milligrams daily, primarily from salt added to foods prepared commercially and in restaurants.

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