Where sodium hides and how to limit it

Last updated: August 2010

On average, Americans consume about 3,500 milligrams of sodium a day. That's more than twice the 1,500 mg maximum recommended for people 40 and older, African-Americans, and anyone with high blood pressure—groups that together represent about 70 percent of adults in the U.S. It's even well above the maximum recommended for everyone else: 2,300 mg, the amount in about 1 teaspoon of salt.

Some sodium is needed to help regulate fluids, transmit nerve impulses, and contract muscles, but too much can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks and especially strokes. Excess sodium may also boost the risk of asthma, kidney stones, osteoporosis, and stomach cancer.

Little of the sodium we consume arrives via salt shakers. About 75 percent comes from restaurant foods or processed foods, where it enhances flavor, stabilizes ingredients, or acts as a preservative. But the marketplace may be changing: Lower-sodium foods and drinks are a major food trend for 2010, according to market-research publisher Packaged Facts, and several food companies have already started to cut sodium from some products.

Kraft, for example, announced its intention to reduce sodium in its North American line by an average of 10 percent over the next two years. And Heinz has announced that it will introduce its first recipe change in almost 40 years, lowering its ketchup's sodium from 190 mg per serving to 160 mg.

12 ways to cut salt from your diet

The more sodium you want to eliminate from your diet, the more you'll need to eat fresh, whole foods. Here are 12 tips to cut salt from your diet:

  • Cut back on canned meat and soups, cold cuts, frozen dinners, and pizza. Avoid meats that have been marinated or injected with salty basting solutions or broths.
  • Look for products that have no more than 140 mg of sodium per serving, the amount that's considered "low sodium" by the Food and Drug Administration, and stick with the recommended serving size.
  • Consume no more than one food per day containing 480 mg of sodium or more per serving, the limit the FDA allows on foods labeled as "healthy."
  • Rinse canned tuna and beans.
  • Buy fresh vegetables or frozen or canned "no salt added" ones.
  • Don't salt the water before cooking pasta, potatoes, or vegetables.
  • Use herbs, spices, and salt-free seasonings, such as garlic or onion powder.
  • Try lemon or lime juice, or balsamic, cider, or wine vinegar on salads and vegetables.
  • Apply blended herbs and spices to meat or poultry. Possibilities include citrus (grated lemon or orange peel, minced garlic and cracked pepper); Italian (chopped, fresh, or dried oregano, basil, rosemary, Italian parsley and garlic); and pepper-garlic (garlic powder, cracked black pepper, and cayenne pepper).
  • Limit the use of condiments like reduced-sodium soy or barbecue sauce; they still have lots of sodium.
  • Look at labels for ingredients such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sodium benzoate, which contain sodium.
  • Watch out for certain medications, too, notably antacids that contain sodium bicarbonate, such as Alka-Seltzer Effervescent Tablets and Bromo Seltzer.

Sodium in prepared food

There's still a lot of sodium in prepared foods. The product information below shows how easy it is to get too much.

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