Is Salt in Your Diet Really That Bad for You?

It’s said that 90 percent of Americans consume too much sodium, which is a leading cause of high blood pressure and can lead to heart disease and stroke.

If throwing away our saltshakers would take care of the problem, it would be an easy fix. But most of the sodium in our diets comes from processed and prepared foods.

Sodium is added to almost all processed foods for a variety of reasons, including controlling microbial growth, which causes food to spoil. Sodium is also used for flavor, texture, leavening and fermentation.

A number of foods that taste salty add significantly to our sodium intake, such as pizza, sandwiches, deli meats, pasta dishes, snacks, breads and rolls. Other foods including cake mixes, bagels, cereals and ketchup don’t taste salty, but are high in sodium.

Are Salt and Sodium the Same?

We use the words “salt” and “sodium” interchangeably, but they are different. The salt we sprinkle on a meal is a crystal compound that’s 60 percent chloride and 40 percent sodium. Sodium is a mineral found in salt. About 95 percent of the sodium in our diets comes in the form of salt.

Sodium can occur naturally in foods, including celery, beets and milk. As a food ingredient, sodium – whether from salt or other sodium-containing ingredients – has many uses, such as a thickening agent, flavor enhancer or preservative.

Is It Really Bad for You?

On average, Americans consume 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily, which is nearly 50 percent more than the 2,300 mg limit recommended by federal guidelines. The problem starts early, as most children and adolescents eat more than is recommended.

When sodium intake increases, blood pressure does too, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke – two leading causes of death in the U.S. In some studies, researchers have estimated that lowering U.S. sodium intake by about 40 percent over the next decade could save 500,000 lives.

The U.S. food industry has responded with no-sodium versions of certain products aimed at health-conscious consumers. As for flavor, most people don’t notice a 10 to 15 percent reduction in sodium. Manufacturers compensate with blends of herbs and spices.

Steps You Can Take

When it comes to reducing sodium and the subsequent health risks, there are steps we can take immediately at the supermarket:

  • Buy fresh vegetables or frozen versions without sauce. When buying canned vegetables, look for versions with no salt added.
  • Use fresh poultry, fish, pork and lean meat, rather than canned or processed meats. Check the packaging to see if saline or a salt solution has been added.
  • Look for low sodium, lower sodium, reduced sodium or no salt added versions of products.
  • Limit your use of sauces, mixes and “instant” products, including flavored rice and ready-made pasta.
  • Compare the Nutrition Facts labels on food packages for Percent Daily Value or amount of sodium in milligrams.

To reduce your sodium when you are eating at a restaurant:

  • Check online for nutritional information before you go if you are eating at a chain restaurant or fast-food outlet. Some independent restaurants also post this on their websites.
  • Ask the server for information about the amount of sodium in a dish. Some menus include this information.
  • Ask that no salt be added to your food.
  • Sauces and dressings can be hidden sodium sources. Ask for these toppings on the side and use them sparingly.
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