Salt on a table

Last week, the FDA released new guidelines for daily salt consumption in an effort to help control Americans' rising blood pressure. 

RICHMOND — The health police are dealing with more than the delta variant, the unvaccinated and booster questions. Those medical-oriented things are only half of what the federal Food and Drug Administration thinks about daily. Thus, last week, they tackled salt.

Like COVID-19, salt can be a killer. It just takes longer. According to reporting in the New York Times and other places, Americans have a love affair with salt that goes way beyond what they shake on their food at the table. And too much salt, warns the FDA, is a leading factor in raising high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack, stroke or kidney failure.

Last Wednesday, the FDA issued new guidelines for daily salt consumption based on what was termed an epidemic of dietary illnesses. Few Americans will like thinking about the sodium content of what they eat because Americans love salt — in their pizza, their canned soups, their bread, their cheeseburgers.

No mandates here. Nothing for the anti-vax freedom fighters to worry about. But it would be a good idea for them to be among health-conscious Americans and check on their blood pressure now and then. Right now, the FDA is making recommendations although, admittedly, some experts in nutrition and public health fields would like to see some hard-and-fast rules. Someday.

So, how much is too much, and who is getting too much? The top number mentioned is 2,300 milligrams of salt a day, which is a little more than a teaspoon. On average, Americans take in 3,400 milligrams a day. It’s not rocket science: Consider that a fast-food cheeseburger can contain 745 mg, a popular firm’s pepperoni pizza has 690. That’s for one slice, and no one stops — no one can even think about stopping — at one slice.

In addition, that max is generous. For little people, 2 to 4 years old, it’s 1,200. For 9 to 13, it’s 1,800. And more than 90 percent of the kids aged 2 to 13 are getting more than the recommended amount. At over 60, the recommendation is 2,300 mg a day, with 94 percent of males exceeding that. And 72 percent of females. We are just plain salty, birth to death.

To deal with the death part, the FDA wants the nation’s sodium intake reduced 40 percent in the next decade, predicting that could save 500,000 lives. The agency says more than two-thirds of the extra sodium we consume comes from processed and packaged food and meals served at restaurants. It’s notable that on some TV food shows, the performing chef has salt in a bucket, not a teaspoon, scoops up some with his hand and tosses it in.

Reading food labels has been habit for shoppers in this family for years, ever since the head of household was diagnosed with a blood pressure problem, joining 4 in 10 other Americans. We know that one pancake mix has 640 mg, another much less; that dried soup mixes are 610 and some canned soups even more than that. All of the listings on boxes and cans are for a single serving, so those who take a second helping get double. And the servings are rarely as large as what most people want. We are also a nation of hearty eaters. (Unless we’re among the hungry.)

Nutritionists and public health experts have welcomed the FDA’s renewed attention to sodium, but the Times called the food industry’s reaction “somewhat muted,” with the Consumer Brands Association, for instance, declining to comment at all. Still, some companies, like baby-food maker Gerber, have been working on lowering sodium content for a number of years. The big problem is that we have an acquired taste, and it’s hard to change with pinches of herbs and spices. Salt is part of the culture when you think of the language around it.

Think how we describe a person who represents the best or noblest elements of our world: Salt of the earth.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.