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New salt study: We're still drowning in salt

New salt study: Despite warnings from the CDC, most producers of fast foods and processed foods didn't lower the salt content in their foods between 2005 and 2001, say researchers.

By Rachael RettnerMy Health News Daily Senior Writer / May 14, 2013

Boston Market restaurants, like this one seen today in Alexandria, Va., have removed salt shakers from restaurant tables and placed them with other condiments on the beverage dispenser table. Most Americans still eat way too much salt, says a new study, not just from salt shakers but because of sodium in processed foods.

Cliff Owen / AP

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Despite recent calls for food manufacturers to cut back on salt in their products, sodium levels in processed and restaurant foods have changed little in recent years, a new salt study suggests.

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The study, conducted by the advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest, reviewed the sodium content of 402 processed foods sold at supermarkets, and 78 fast foods sold at chain restaurants.

Between 2005 and 2011, the sodium content of processed foods declined, on average, by 3.5 percent, and the sodium content of fast foods increased by 2.6 percent. Both of these changes were so small that they could have been due to chance, said study researcher Dr. Stephen Havas, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

RECOMMENDED: Salt Sugar Fat

Currently, 9 in 10 Americans eat too much salt, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The government recommends people limit their salt intake to 2,300 milligrams per day. (For those who are 51 years or older, African-American, have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney diseases, the recommendation is 1,500 mg per day.)

"That’s nearly impossible for people to do right now, given how much salt is in restaurant and processed foods," Havas said. The average American takes in about 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Too much sodium in the diet raises blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, the CDC says.

Overall, the amount of salt we consume from processed and fast foods needs to decline by at least 50 percent to have benefits for people's health, Havas said. (Most of the salt we consume is through processed and fast foods, and not from a salt shaker, the researchers say.)

The new findings suggest that change happens too slowly when the food industry is asked to voluntarily reduce the sodium content of its foods, Havas said. Instead, the Food and Drug Administration should take steps to limit the amount of sodium allowed in different categories of food, he said.

High sodium foods

Some of the saltiest foods in the study were smoked bacon (1,803 mg of sodium per 100-gram serving), Caesar salad dressing (1,079 mg) and hot dogs (927 mg).

And a fast food meal of chicken strips and fries contained, on average, 1,239 mg of salt in 2011.

The study did not include products labeled as low sodium or sodium-free because the intent of the study was to focus on regular foods that had ample opportunity to reduce sodium levels between 2005 and 2011.

The researchers found wide variation in sodium levels in fast food. For instance, a medium serving of Burger King french fries had nearly twice the sodium as a medium serving of McDonald's french fries (670 mg versus 270 mg per 100 g serving).

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