Experts say these guidelines are "a good step."

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For years, public health officials have warned that Americans consume too much salt on a daily basis. And now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is trying to do something about it.

The FDA issued new draft guidelines on Wednesday that specifically aim to reduce the amount of sodium Americans ingest when they eat out, or when they have packaged or prepared foods at home. The recommendations—which are voluntary—aim to reduce the average daily sodium intake by 12% over the next 2.5 years. How? By asking food companies and restaurants to cut back on how much salt they use.

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Credit: Getty Images

The thinking here is that Americans get most of the sodium in their diets when we eat out at restaurants or incorporate packaged or prepared foods into our diets at home, and if companies heed these recommendations, average daily sodium intake would decrease. At a 12% reduction, they're aiming to cut back the average amount of salt Americans eat on a daily basis to 3,000 mg from 3,400 mg. Worth noting: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults limit their sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg a day.

Too much sodium intake has been linked to serious health conditions like high blood pressure, which is a major cause of heart attack and stroke, the FDA points out. Research has found that about 70% of our sodium intake comes from eating out or having processed and packaged foods, according to a 2017 study published in the American Heart Association's journal, Circulation.

The American Heart Association (AHA) applauded the new guidance in a press release on Wednesday, but said it's "not enough" to tackle the sodium problem the country is facing.

"While educating the public about the consequences of consuming too much sodium is a valuable tool, it is not enough to truly impact consumers' health due to the high amount of sodium in the food supply," the AHA said. "The adoption of these targets will be a crucial step in helping countless people across the country decrease their sodium intake."

The AHA said that the FDA's target "represent an important step forward, but lowering sodium intake to 3,000 mg per day is not enough. Lowering sodium further to 2,300 mg could prevent an estimated 450,000 cases of cardiovascular disease, gain 2 million quality-adjusted life years and save approximately $40 billion in health-care costs over a 20-year period." The AHA ended on this note: "We urge the FDA to follow today's action with additional targets to further lower the amount of sodium in the food supply and help people in America attain an appropriate sodium intake."

Nutritionists also say the new guidelines are good, but agree that they could go further. Scott Keatley, R.D., of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy, tells Health that the guidelines are good "for now."

Keatley says that recommendations to reduce sodium in our diet are "needed based on the incidences of hypertension throughout the country." He adds, "most people aren't sitting at home and adding piles of salt to food—it is usually coming from restaurants and packaged foods. The goal of decreasing these sources of salt is a big move in the right direction."

Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., author of The Small Change Diet, tells Health that the new guidance "makes a lot of sense," adding that it "better aligns" with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendation of 2,300 milligrams or less of sodium a day. "Since so many Americans consume their sodium from packaged foods and commercially prepared it definitely a good place to start," she says.

Gans stresses that this is a "good beginning" and will help move Americans in the right direction. "The average consumer is accustomed to the taste of saltier foods, so a gradual change may be more accepting," she says. Keatley agrees. "Have you had plain popcorn? It's not very tasty, as compared to salted popcorn," he says. "We're used to a lot of salt, so to take it all away in an instant is a good way to turn people against you. A gradual reduction over time will allow people's palate to get used to the change."

Gans also adds this: "Eventually, it would nice if the recommendation is not voluntary, but mandatory."

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