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You’ve probably heard that most Americans eat too much sodium, and too much sodium can raise blood pressure – which can have serious health consequences if not treated.
Despite what many people think, use of the salt shaker is not the main cause of too much sodium in your diet. In fact, over 75% of dietary sodium comes from eating packaged and restaurant foods, whereas only a small portion (11%) comes from salt added to food when cooking or eating. But, even though sodium is already in these foods when you purchase them, there are still some steps you can follow to lower your daily sodium intake.
Look at the Label!
Packaged foods and beverages can contain high levels of sodium, whether or not they taste salty. That’s why it’s important to use the Nutrition Facts Label to check the sodium content.
- Understand the Daily Value. The Daily Values are the amounts of nutrients recommended per day for Americans 4 years of age and older. The Daily Value for sodium is less than 2,400 milligrams (mg) per day.
- Use the Percent Daily Value (%DV) as a tool. The %DV tells you how much of a nutrient is in one serving of a food. The %DV is based on 100% of the Daily Value for sodium. When comparing and choosing foods, pick the food with a lower %DV of sodium. As a general rule:
- 5% DV or less of sodium per serving is low
- 20% DV or more of sodium per serving is high
- Pay attention to serving sizes. The %DV listed is for one serving, but one package may contain more than one serving. Be sure to look at the serving size to determine how many servings you are actually consuming. For example, if a package contains two servings and you eat the entire package, you are consuming twice the amount of sodium listed on the label.
Food Choices Matter!
Almost half of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from the following foods, many of which are commercially processed or prepared:
- Breads and rolls
- Cheese (natural and processed)
- Cold cuts and cured meats (such as deli or packaged ham or turkey)
- Mixed meat dishes (such as beef stew, chili, and meat loaf)
- Mixed pasta dishes (such as lasagna, pasta salad, and spaghetti with meat sauce)
- Poultry (fresh and processed)
- Sandwiches (such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and submarine sandwiches)
- Savory snacks (such as chips, crackers, popcorn, and pretzels)
But remember, the sodium content can vary significantly between similar types of foods. So, use the Nutrition Facts Label to compare the amount of sodium in different foods and beverages, and select products that are lower in sodium. And, don’t forget to check the serving size when comparing products in order to make an accurate comparison.
Salt and Sodium: Defined
The words “salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. Salt (also known by its chemical name, sodium chloride) is a crystal-like compound that is abundant in nature and is used to flavor and preserve food. Sodium is a mineral, and one of the chemical elements found in salt.
Sodium as a Food Ingredient
As a food ingredient, sodium has multiple uses, such as for curing meat, baking, thickening, retaining moisture, enhancing flavor (including the flavor of other ingredients), and as a preservative. Some common food additives – like monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium nitrite, and sodium benzoate – also contain sodium and contribute (in lesser amounts) to the total amount of “sodium” listed on the Nutrition Facts Label.
Surprisingly, some foods that don’t taste salty can still be high in sodium, which is why using taste alone is not an accurate way to judge a food’s sodium content. For example, while some foods that are high in sodium (like pickles and soy sauce) taste salty, there are also many foods (like cereals and pastries) that contain sodium but don’t taste salty. Also, some foods that you may eat several times a day (such as breads) can add up to a lot of sodium over the course of a day, even though an individual serving may not be high in sodium.
Check the Package for Nutrient Claims
You can also check for nutrient claims on food and beverage packages to quickly identify those that may contain less sodium. Here’s a guide to common claims and what they mean:
What It Says
What It Means
|Salt/Sodium-Free||Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving|
|Very Low Sodium||35 mg of sodium or less per serving|
|Low Sodium||140 mg of sodium or less per serving|
|Reduced Sodium||At least 25% less sodium than the regular product|
|Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted||At least 50% less sodium than the regular product|
|No-Salt-Added or Unsalted||No salt is added during processing – but these products may not be salt/sodium-free unless stated|
Sodium and Blood Pressure
Sodium attracts water, and a high-sodium diet draws water into the bloodstream, which can increase the volume of blood and subsequently your blood pressure. High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) is a condition in which blood pressure remains elevated over time. Hypertension makes the heart work harder, and the high force of the blood flow can harm arteries and organs (such as the heart, kidneys, brain, and eyes).
And since blood pressure normally rises with age, limiting your sodium intake becomes even more important each year. The good news is that eating less sodium can help lower blood pressure, which in turn, can help reduce your risk of developing these serious medical conditions.
Did you know that sodium and potassium both affect blood pressure? Eating enough potassium each day can help lower blood pressure by balancing out some of the harmful effects that sodium can have on blood pressure. Look for foods rich in potassium, such as bananas, beet greens, juices (carrot, orange, pomegranate, and prune), yogurt (non-fat and low-fat), potatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and tomato products, and white beans.
Note: Food manufacturers may voluntarily list the Percent Daily Value (%DV) of potassium per serving on the Nutrition Facts Label, but they are required to list potassium if a statement is made on the package labeling about its health effects or the amount contained in the food (for example, “high” or “low”).
- Approximately 56% of adults in the U.S. (ages 18 years and older) have either hypertension or prehypertension (blood pressure that is higher than normal, but not high enough to be defined as hypertension).
- Approximately 10% of children in the U.S. (ages 8 to 17 years old) have either hypertension or prehypertension.
- Hypertension can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness.
Know Your Numbers
Sodium is an essential nutrient and is needed by the body in relatively small amounts (provided that substantial sweating does not occur) to maintain a balance of body fluids and keep muscles and nerves running smoothly. However, most Americans eat too much of it – and they may not even know it.
Americans eat on average over 3,400 mg of sodium per day, with intakes generally higher for men than women. However, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults and children ages 14 years and older limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day – that’s equal to about 1 teaspoon of salt!
Adults with hypertension and prehypertension should further reduce their sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day, which can result in even greater blood pressure reduction. So, talk to your healthcare provider about whether you are at risk for high blood pressure, and use the Nutrition Facts Label as your tool to evaluate how much sodium you are eating and drinking. In addition, adults who would benefit from blood pressure lowering should combine lower sodium intake with the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) dietary pattern (see http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/dash).
10 Easy Tips for Reducing Sodium Consumption
Learning about sodium in foods and exploring new ways to prepare foods can help you achieve your sodium goal. And, if you follow these tips to reduce the amount of sodium you consume, your “taste” for sodium will gradually decrease over time – so eventually, you may not even miss it!
- Read the Nutrition Facts Label
Read the Nutrition Facts Label to see how much sodium is in foods and beverages. Most people should consume less than 100% of the Daily Value (or less than 2,400 mg) of sodium each day. Check the label to compare sodium in different brands of foods and beverages and choose those lower in sodium.
- Prepare your own food when you can
Limit packaged sauces, mixes, and “instant” products (including flavored rice, instant noodles, and ready-made pasta).
- Add flavor without adding sodium
Limit the amount of salt you add to foods when cooking, baking, or at the table. Try no-salt seasoning blends and herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor to your food.
- Buy fresh
Choose fresh meat, poultry, and seafood, rather than processed varieties. Also, check the package on fresh meat and poultry to see if salt water or saline has been added.
- Watch your veggies
Buy fresh, frozen (no sauce or seasoning), or low sodium or no-salt-added canned vegetables.
- Give sodium the “rinse”
Rinse sodium-containing canned foods, such as beans, tuna, and vegetables before eating. This removes some of the sodium.
- “Unsalt” your snacks
Choose low sodium or no-salt-added nuts, seeds, and snack products (such as chips and pretzels) – or have carrot or celery sticks instead.
- Consider your condiments
Sodium in condiments can add up. Choose light or reduced sodium condiments, add oil and vinegar to salads rather than bottled dressings, and use only a small amount of seasoning from flavoring packets instead of the entire packet.
- Reduce your portion size
Less food means less sodium. Prepare smaller portions at home and consume less when eating out — choose smaller sizes, split an entrée with a friend, or take home part of your meal.
- Make lower-sodium choices at restaurants
Ask for your meal to be prepared without salt and request that sauces and salad dressings be served “on the side,” then use less of them. If a restaurant item or meal includes a claim about its nutrient content, such as “low sodium” or “low fat,” then nutrition information to support that claim is required to be available at the point of purchase. In addition, as of December 1, 2016, many chain restaurants (and other places selling restaurant-type food) will be required to provide written information on the nutrient content of standard menu items, including the amount of sodium.