FDA efforts to curb sodium intake have local supporters

MARIETTA – The Food and Drug Administration announced this month it’s considering voluntary guidelines for restaurants and food companies to lower the saltiness of their foods, hoping to help prevent a growing number of deaths from stroke and heart disease.

“I think that’s definitely possible. A lot of people get additional sodium in their diets from eating out. Restaurants want the food to taste good, so they may use more salt, and there’s never been a real push to limit that,” said Nathan Lonidier, registered dietician with Marietta Memorial Hospital.

He noted salt is an acquired taste that can be adjusted by eating less of the substance.

“The American Heart Association says people need about 1,500 mg of sodium a day, and a strict diet with no processed foods can easily meet that,” Lonidier said. “But the average American consumes 3,400 mg of sodium every day.”

He added that one teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium.

“There’s plenty of sodium that already exists naturally in the foods we eat,” Lonidier said.

The average amount of sodium in a 1,000-calorie meal is 1,848 milligrams at fast food restaurants, and 2,090 mg for the same size meal in dine-in restaurants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rebecca Casto, 30, of Parkersburg, said the coming FDA guidelines should not be a surprise.

“We should have seen this coming,” she said. “Nutrition information is already included on many menus, and I do think restaurants should be offering more nutritious foods.”

But Casto noted salt is used to enhance the flavor of restaurant meals.

“They always say if the food you cook at home doesn’t taste like it does in a restaurant, just add some more salt,” she said.

Katherine Pekruhn, 64, of Devola, said she does a lot of low-salt cooking as her husband has borderline high blood pressure.

“We always look for food products that are low salt, and I get perturbed when restaurants put too much salt in our food. I always ask for no salt when ordering in restaurants,” she said. “I cook low-salt by using other herbs and spices, like basil.”

Kathy Doddrill, extension educator family and consumer sciences for the Washington County office of the Ohio State University Extension Service, said using herbs and spices to flavor food is a good way to limit salt intake.

“Too much sodium contributes to blood pressure and stroke, and creates complications for people with heart disease,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to watch what you eat at home and not to eat out too much.”

Doddrill agreed with Lonidier that the taste for salt is a learned behavior that can be unlearned, too.

“And when the salt content is eliminated, people can discover the real taste of foods,” she said, adding that pre-packaged foods contain the most sodium, although low-sodium versions of most foods are also available.

Whether the voluntary guidelines being proposed by the FDA will have an impact on the average American’s sodium intake remains to be seen, Doddrill said.

“It will really depend on consumer demand, but there are a lot of people now who want to become healthier, so this would make it easier for them,” she said.

Doddrill noted information about foods served at many chain and fast food restaurants is available online, and she recommended people concerned about their sodium intake check on those websites before heading out to eat.

Kevin Whitby, owner of the Harmar Tavern and Spagna’s Restaurant in Marietta, said the federal guidelines would likely have little impact on eateries like his.

“How would they enforce that?” he asked. “I’m not too worried about it, because this probably won’t affect mom and pop restaurants like ours. More likely it will impact the chains.”

Kasandra Ruscitto, marketing manager for the Original Pizza Place on Second Street, agreed.

“And we don’t use processed ingredients in our foods, we make them from fresh ingredients every day,” she said. “I don’t think the federal guidelines would affect what we do.”

Cathy Ryan prepares meals daily for folks at the O’Neill Center on Fourth Street.

“We’ve never used salt in our cooking because of the sodium content,” she said. “We do have people here and in the Meals on Wheels program who are on low sodium diets, too, so we have to be careful about the amount of salt in their meals.”

Ryan said the cooks try to use frozen instead of canned vegetables because there is less sodium when the vegetables are frozen.

But that’s not true of all frozen foods, said Rebecca Lines, 70, of Marietta.

“Many of us live alone, and would like to eat frozen dinners instead of preparing a meal for just one person,” she said. “But frozen dinners contain a lot of sodium. I think the government should regulate those.”