As I predicted in late 2007, sodium is quickly becoming the new trans fat in terms of public awareness, advertising focus (the amount of product touting "now with less sodium!" stickers continues to grow), and nutrition policy.
Today's New York Times profiles "a new campaign to lower the amount of sodium America eats" developed by Dr. Thomas Frieden, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Over a recent lunch with food company executives, Dr. Frieden made his wishes very clear: "identify the foods that are contributing the most sodium to people’s diets and cut the level of salt by 25 percent. Do it in unison with out competitor [and a decade after that], cut it by another 25 percent."
As optional as that may sound, Dr. Frieden did not shy away from proposing stricter legislation on sodium content in foods if companies did not appear to make an effort.
When this man talks, food companies tend to listen, particularly since he is one of the main brains behind trans fat bans and calorie labeling laws that are rapidly spreading throughout the United States.
"Under Dr. Frieden's plan, which is based on one in the United Kingdom, targets for sodium reduction will be set for certain food categories. The prime suspects include cheese, breakfast cereals, bread, macaroni and noodle products, cake mixes, condiments and soups. The final list of sodium targets will be based on a formula that takes into account the amount of sodium in a product as well as how much food in that category people eat."
It is not too surprising that sodium consumption is higher now than it was seventy years ago, considering the increasing amount of processed foods that make up the "typical American diet" (remember, the more processed a food, the higher its sodium content and the lower its potassium levels).
While recommendations call for no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day, the average adult in the United States consumes anywhere from 3,300 to 3,700 milligrams on a daily basis.
And while it is true that not everyone is equally sensitive to sodium, there is a large enough percentage of the population that is sensitive that justifies a concern surrounding the amounts of sodium in many products.
The most interesting thing about sodium is that our palates adapt rather quickly to higher or lower amounts.
After approximately 21 to 25 days on a lower sodium diet, foods that once seemed "moderately salty" tend to be perceived as "very salty."
Which brings me to another important point. Many people erroneously think that if a food doesn't taste salty, it does not contain sodium.
Not so. High amounts of sodium are often found in sweet foods.
A Baskin Robbins Oreo sundae, for example, contains 950 milligrams of sodium. That's 600 MORE milligrams than a large order of McDonald's fries.