AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Even during this pandemic, the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease. And one contributor is just too much sodium in the food that we eat. The Food and Drug Administration announced a set of targets today aimed at reducing salt consumption, and the agency is calling on food companies to lead the way.
NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now with more. Hey, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa, good to be here.
CHANG: Good to have you. OK, I just want to say I love salt. So how are they going to get me to eat less salt? Tell me.
AUBREY: Well, the FDA is asking food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sodium in processed and prepared foods so that Americans are consuming about 12% less over the next 2 1/2 years. Now, this might sound trivial, Ailsa, but the agency says small reductions can lead to significant benefits. I spoke to Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock.
JANET WOODCOCK: Too much sodium is making people sick. It's leading to hypertension, and that causes both heart disease, strokes and even kidney damage. And it's preventable.
AUBREY: Now, Woodcock says it's hard for people to cut sodium consumption on their own.
AUBREY: As you say, you love it. That's because more than 70% of the sodium in our diets comes from the processed and prepared foods that we buy. So the agency is asking the food industry to take action. The FDA released a set of voluntary targets nudging food companies to cut back gradually.
CHANG: Voluntary targets - OK, is there any evidence that this is going to work if it's voluntary?
AUBREY: Yeah. Well, Dr. Woodcock points to similar voluntary approaches around the globe that have been successful. For instance, in the U.K., a sodium reduction initiative that began back in the early 2000s led to about a 15% reduction in the average salt intake. Over time, this corresponded with a reduction in average blood pressure across the population.
Most recently, there was a study out of China published in the New England Journal of Medicine that got some attention. I spoke to Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones - he's president of the American Heart Association - about how they swapped table salt for a healthier alternative.
DONALD LLOYD-JONES: They actually substituted potassium chloride for sodium chloride in a number of villages across China, and they saw significant reductions in heart attacks and strokes as well. So the data are there. This is solid science. And again, if we can remove sodium from the processed foods in our food supply, consumers won't even notice, but they'll reap the health benefits.
AUBREY: Now, his organization estimates that if Americans reduced sodium intake down to the recommended daily level, it would prevent an estimated 450,000 cases of heart disease and save about $40 billion in health care costs over 20 years.
CHANG: Wow. OK, that's huge. I could be convinced. What does the food industry say about all this?
AUBREY: Well, the American Frozen Food Institute says food companies are already on it, offering more reduced sodium, lightly salted and no salt options. The group says it will continue to work with the FDA on sodium reduction. Meanwhile, health advocates say these new targets are a good starting point. But Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian - he's dean of the nutrition school at Tufts University. He says deeper cuts are needed. He points out that Americans consume, on average, about 50% more than the daily recommended intake.
DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: The FDA really has to act, and very soon, for the long-term goals to reduce sodium, you know, down to where it's safe for the American public.
AUBREY: But he says today's action, Ailsa, is a step in the right direction.
CHANG: And so it is. That is NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.
AUBREY: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.