Americans Are Eating Less Packaged, Salty Foods

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A massive study using a smart methodology to capture true eating habits shows that salt intake among Americans from packaged foods has decreased significantly since the turn of the century.

Researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill obtained authentic grocery purchasing data from 172,042 American households via a partnership with The Nielsen Company.

Credit: Jared K/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Those participating in the study used a barcode scanner to record the consumption of their purchased food. From 2000 to 2014, overall sodium intake from packaged foods was down about 12 percent.

The study was published earlier this week in JAMA Internal Medicine.

In particular, salty snacks and condiments, sauces and dips aren’t as full of sodium as they once were. In fact, the researchers recorded an almost 150 percent plunge in sodium intake from salty snacks and a more than 100 percent dive in sodium intake from condiments, sauces and the like.

The U.S. government has spent considerable resources on campaigns to get Americans to eat less sodium. They have also prodded food makers to begin lowering sodium levels, which many have done.

High salt intake leads to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems that can be deadly and expensive to treat.

Thousands of Lives Already Saved

According to the researchers, significant dividends already have been seen and potentially tens of thousands of lives saved. “Previous simulation studies predicted that a reduction in population-level sodium intake of this magnitude (approximately 400 mg per day) would reduce new cases of coronary heart disease by 20,000 to 40,000 and deaths from all causes (of cardiovascular disease) by 15,000 to 32,000 annually.”

In a corresponding editorial published in JAMA Internal Medicine, Dr. Mitchell Katz, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, called the study “gratifying.” He applauded the unique methodology.

Related: Eating Salty Food Increases Hunger, Not Thirst

“The authors should be commended for using a novel technology – bar code scanning of supermarket receipts – rather than relying on unverified self-reports of food purchased,” Katz wrote.

Credit: Chelsey Baldock/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“For many reasons, with convenience being a key consideration, many Americans commonly eat packaged food, which is a major source of salt,” he added.

The authors of the study and Katz are in agreement that much more work remains to be done in the war against excessive sodium intake. Most Americans are still consuming way too much salt; only about 1.2 percent of households in 2014 actually purchased food that corresponds with the nation’s recommended daily intake guidelines.

Related: Eating Less Salt Could Mean Fewer Midnight Bathroom Trips

“Clearly, there is a need to further decrease the salt content of packaged food and beverages and, even better, to reduce the consumption of them,” Katz concluded.

The UNC researchers echoed that sentiment. “Despite these improvements, almost all U.S. households continue to have total packaged food purchases with excessive sodium density. The slow rate of decline in sodium from store-bought foods suggests that more concerted sodium reductions efforts are necessary in the United States.”

“Future studies are needed to examine sodium trends by race/ethnicity and income to identify vulnerable subpopulations that further interventions should target,” they concluded.

A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.”