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Americans trying to eat healthier food may have the cards stacked against them — it’s very hard to find healthful food in U.S. grocery stories, a government study finds.
They found that fewer than half of packaged grocery-store products in most food categories met Food and Drug Administration requirements for being labeled as a “healthy” food.
Their findings, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, may help explain why more than 90 percent of Americans eat more sodium than recommended.
“More than 70 percent of pizzas, pasta mixed dishes, and meat mixed dishes and 50 percent to 70 percent of cold cuts, soups, and sandwiches exceeded FDA ‘healthy’ labeling standards for sodium, whereas less than 10 percent of breads, savory snacks, and cheeses did,” Linda Schieb, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and colleagues wrote in their report.
Schieb’s team was looking for regional differences across the U.S.. They used sodium content to determine which foods are healthy. But it’s a good marker for foods that are unhealthful in a variety of ways, whether they’re high in fat or in processed grains, sugar — or all of those.
“Generally, if you look at the sodium content, it does give you a good indication of how healthy the food would be,” Schieb said.
They didn’t find a whole lot of difference. Wherever you live, grocery stores are packed with unhealthful options. Or, at least Americans are buying the unhealthful options. They looked at all sales in 2009 from grocery stores in three U.S. Census regions: the South Atlantic, East North Central, and Pacific.
“In all 3 divisions, 50 percent or more of products sold in most food categories exceeded the sodium-per-serving conditions for a ‘healthy’ food,” they wrote.
Guidelines from the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture aim to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables and less fat, sodium and sugar.
The FDA won’t let a food manufacturer label food as healthy unless it contains less than 480 milligrams of sodium in a single serving of “individual” food such as bread, or less than 600 mg in a main dish meal.
The American Heart Association says people should aim to eat 2,300 milligrams of salt or less a day, but almost no one hits that target.
It’s almost certainly because so much food that’s sold is high in sodium, experts say, and this study supports it.
“We have worked with the manufacturers to try and reduce some of the sodium in packaged foods and grains,” Schieb said.
“These data support recent findings that suggest that meeting sodium recommendations may be difficult in the current food environment,” the report concluded. “Because many of the top-selling packaged food products in each region were national brands, regional variation in sodium content of available products may be limited.”
Most of the salt that Americans eat is “hidden” in processed foods, Schieb notes. It doesn’t come from the salt shaker or obvious salt, but can be in foods such as bread. In fact, bread’s the single biggest source of sodium in the U.S. diet because people eat so much of it.
The consequences are clear. A panel that advises FDA and USDA on dietary guidelines notes Americans are generally not healthy. "About half of all Americans—117 million individuals — have one or more preventable chronic diseases that relate to poor dietary patterns and physical inactivity, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and diet-related cancers," they wrote in a report issued earlier this year.
A third of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, and at least a quarter of those cases are affected by sodium intake. People with high blood pressure are advised to eat less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
The best option? Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Unprocessed food rarely contains much sodium, Schieb advises. This study didn’t look at how much fresh, unprocessed food people were buying.
“If you are going to buy packaged food, look at the label and make sure you try and choose a lower sodium option,” Schieb adds.
This article was originally published Apr. 2, 2015 at 5:29 p.m. ET.