By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Salty foods may soon be less salty as the FDA has advised lower sodium levels overall. Reduced amounts of the common mineral can lead to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Sodium and potassium are high-profile electrolytes.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced new guidelines for the food industry that encourage lower levels of sodium. Specifically, this would mean reduced salts in condiments, cereals, French fries, and potato chips. The majority of the sodium problem, the agency said, is due to packaged and restaurant foods as opposed to the average table salt used to season meals at home.
It also recommended a gradual lowering of sodium levels across the board to prevent people from searching for higher-sodium alternatives.
Why such concern about salt when health experts usually focus on starches and sugars? In her video series Nutrition Made Clear, Professor Roberta H. Anding, Director of Sports Nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, explained that sodium and potassium are counterbalancing electrolytes that play major roles in our diets.
The Skinny on Sodium and Potassium
“[Sodium and potassium] play a very important role in regulating fluid exchange within body compartments,” Professor Anding said. “As such, blood levels of these electrolytes are rarely affected only by dietary means, and that should make sense. If they are so integral to function, your body has to have a lot of different defense mechanisms to keep the blood values of sodium and potassium within narrow range.”
Sodium and potassium affect our blood pressure, which is a huge factor in our health. Again, they counterbalance each other: Sodium can raise our blood pressure, while an intake of potassium lowers it by blunting sodium’s effects. Potassium also reduces the risk of developing kidney stones and bone loss with age.
If sodium and potassium are antagonists within our body, what are their primary functions? According to Professor Anding, we need them to regulate blood and other bodily fluids, to help nerves to talk to one another, to stimulate muscle activity, to encourage proper gland function and heart activity, and more.
Where We Get Our Sodium
When the FDA recommended lowering sodium levels in already prepared foods as opposed to simply using less table salt at home, it did so with good reason.
“Seventy-seven percent of the sodium we get comes from food processing,” Professor Anding said. “The more processed a food is—and I generally describe that as ‘the higher the ingredient list, or the more hands that touch it, the center of the grocery store’—the more processed a food is, the higher its sodium content and, in general, the lower its potassium content. Twelve percent of the sodium is naturally occurring—that means there’s sodium naturally found in the food, not added by the manufacturer.”
Meanwhile, just 6% of the sodium we consume is added at the table, and the remaining 5% is added during the cooking process.
This means that when it comes to the amount of sodium in our diets, nearly 13 times the amount comes from food processing versus what we shake out of a salt shaker while eating. Overall, food processing is responsible for seven times the sodium content as compared to what is added at home, whether during cooking or at the dinner table. So while it may be good to lay off the table salt, the lion’s share of the problem has already occurred by the time we pick an item up from the grocery store shelf.