Having a light hand with the saltshaker is the usual advice for those looking to cut back on sodium.

But according to a study published today in the medical journal Circulation, 71 percent of the sodium we eat each day comes from commercially packaged foods and restaurant meals. The salt we add to food ourselves accounts for just 11 percent of the total.

“People think that if they use less salt at the table or when they’re cooking they’ll be okay, but that’s just not true,” says the study’s lead author, Lisa Harnack, Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Coordinating Center at the University of Minnesota. “You have to reduce the commercially processed and packaged foods and restaurant dishes you’re eating that are high in sodium to really make a dent.”

For this new study, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Stanford University, and the University of Minnesota had 450 men and women keep detailed records of what they ate—including packaged and restaurant food—on four days, and interviewed the participants about their diets.

To get information on the amount of salt the study participants put into the food they cooked or added at the table, researchers instructed them to shake equal amounts of salt into a plastic bag for analysis.

In addition to determining where sodium comes from in people’s diets, the researchers found that the average daily sodium intake was about 3,500 mg. The recommended daily upper limit is 2,300 mg, according to Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Stalling on Sodium Reduction

As part of a yearslong effort to reduce the sodium count of commercially prepared foods, the Food and Drug Administration issued voluntary sodium reduction goals for packaged and restaurant foods in June 2016, based on evidence about sodium’s link to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

The agency’s goal was to encourage food manufacturers to meet minimal targets (e.g., reducing sodium content by 5 to 15 percent in some cases) within two years and accomplish larger reductions within 10 years.

But a rider attached to the spending bill Congress passed this April to prevent a government shutdown requires the FDA to halt further work toward these 10-year targets (it doesn’t mention the short-term goals) until there are new dietary reference intakes established for sodium.

“It’s not a given that food manufacturers over the next several years will reduce sodium in their products by a significant margin,” says William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports.

“Consumers still need to carefully check food labels and any nutrition information available at restaurants to make sure they’re aware of how much sodium they’re eating," he added. "This is especially important for people who are at a higher risk of heart disease or who have hypertension, kidney disease, or other health problems that make them susceptible to the effects of sodium.” 

6 Ways to Zero In on Sodium

Being careful about the food you purchase is the easiest way to reduce the sodium that’s hiding in plain sight. Keep these suggestions in mind:

1. Comparison shop. Whatever area of the supermarket you’re shopping in, check the labels on several brands of the same item, just like you would if you were comparing sugar or fat content. “Once you find a lower-sodium option that you like, stick with it,” says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., the Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. “Don’t try to do it all at once; just take it one category of food at a time.”

2. Speak up when you eat out. Ask your server if there are low-sodium options on the menu or if the chef can limit the salt in in your dish. “If restaurants start getting more requests like that, they may be more mindful about how they prepare their food,” Lichtenstein says. The same goes for food manufacturers. Write, tweet, call, or email to let them know you prefer low-sodium options.

3. Make whole foods a priority. Canned, boxed, and frozen foods can be high in sodium, especially when they come with added sauces and seasoning. Cooking with fresh vegetables—whole grains; fresh lean meat, poultry, and fish; and dried beans—can dramatically reduce the sodium content of your diet. Another bonus: Vegetables, beans, and whole grains are typically high in potassium, which helps counteract sodium’s impact on blood pressure.

5. Rinse canned foods. There are more low-sodium versions of canned vegetables and beans than ever before, but canned varieties can still be a sneaky hiding place for sodium. Draining the liquid, then rinsing them can eliminate up to 40 percent of the sodium in some cases.

6. Downsize servings. Splitting restaurant entrées is an easy way to reduce calories and cut back on sodium at the same time. Asking for sauces and condiments on the side gives you control over how much flavor (and salt) to add.  

Sodium in Food

Eating a healthy diet isn't always easy. Consumer Reports' expert, Trisha Calvo, shows 'Consumer 101' TV show host, Jack Rico, how to make a tasty and nutritious sandwich—while cutting back on sodium intake.