Salt of the Earth

For those already struggling to reduce fat and cholesterol in their diets, news that Americans are getting too much sodium may seem like someone is rubbing salt in the wound. But new research shows that cutting out even a little salt can go a long way. A 3-gram-a-day reduction in salt intake (about 1,200 milligrams of sodium) would result in 6% fewer new cases of heart disease, 8% fewer heart attacks

For those already struggling to reduce fat and cholesterol in their diets, news that Americans are getting too much sodium may seem like someone is rubbing salt in the wound.

But new research shows that cutting out even a little salt can go a long way. A 3-gram-a-day reduction in salt intake (about 1,200 milligrams of sodium) would result in 6% fewer new cases of heart disease, 8% fewer heart attacks and 3% fewer deaths, according to research released at the American Heart Association's Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention last month.

Retailers are showing shoppers just how easy it can be. At Hy-Vee's Fleur Drive location in Des Moines, Iowa, store dietitian Anne Cundiff samples canned vegetables that she has rinsed off in the sink. Doing so reduces sodium content by 50%, she said. Then, for comparison purposes, she samples canned vegetables that haven't been rinsed off.

“It shows them just how salty canned vegetables are,” Cundiff said.

Numerous food companies have also responded by introducing low-sodium versions of their popular brands.

Kraft, for instance, has low-sodium versions of its Premium Saltines and Ritz Crackers, and last year Frito-Lay introduced Pinch of Salt, low-sodium versions of Lay's Potato Chips, Tostitos Tortilla Chips, Fritos Corn Chips and Ruffles Potato Chips.

Depending on product, sodium content in Pinch of Salt is 30% to 50% less than the original products.

Likewise, Campbell Soup Co. just reformulated 12 of its kids' soups — from Chicken & Stars to Chicken NoodleO's — to contain 480 mg of sodium per serving. The newly reformulated soups are among 78 soups in the portfolio that are at the healthy levels for sodium. Campbell's said it was able to lower sodium without sacrificing taste by using lower-sodium natural sea salt in the soups. General Mills also offers a variety of low-sodium options for its Progresso Soups, Green Giant vegetables and other brands.

“The food industry is definitely making strides in lowering sodium in their products without altering taste,” said Kim Stitzel, director of nutrition and obesity for the American Heart Association.

Americans certainly need some sodium, as it helps maintain the right balance of fluids in the body and transmit nerve impulses. The problem is that they're getting too much. Salt consumption has risen by 50% and blood pressure has risen by nearly the same amount since the 1970s.

Most adults should limit sodium intake to 2,000 to 2,400 mg a day, far less than the 3,600 to 4,800 mg most get.

When too much is consumed, the kidneys can't eliminate it fast enough, so it starts to accumulate in the blood. As a result, the increased blood volume makes the heart work harder, thereby increasing the chance of developing high blood pressure, which can, in turn, lead to cardiovascular and kidney diseases.

Much like fat and cholesterol were targeted in the '80s and trans fats in the '90s, the time has come for sodium to be addressed, said Stitzel. “Sodium is the next big topic in health and nutrition,” she told SN.

One of the big challenges with sodium is that removing the salt shaker from the table is not enough. That's because 70% to 80% of daily salt intake comes from packaged foods.

“The average American ties salt to table salt, but the majority comes from processed foods,” said Carrie Taylor, dietitian at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass. “So even if you're not salting foods, you're still getting a lot of it.”

Food retailers, in turn, are making shoppers aware of reduced-sodium options on their shelves. Bashas' Supermarkets, Chandler, Ariz., uses “Eat Smart” shelf tags in every aisle of the store that identify whether an item has “low sodium,” as well as those that have “reduced sugar” or are healthy in other ways.

And United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, uses “Heart Healthy/Diabetes Management” tags to identify items that have 480 mg or less of sodium, plus are fiber-rich and keep fat and cholesterol in check. Items worthy of the designation include Orville Redenbacher's SmartPop! popcorn, Quaker peanut butter chocolate fiber bars, and Kashi TLC snack bars, noted Tyra Carter, United's corporate dietitian.

Retail efforts are typically beefed up each February during American Heart Month. Throughout the month, Hy-Vee used store tours to get the message across that while most packaged items have too much sodium, the market is changing with new introductions like Heluva Good low-sodium cheese.

Hy-Vee's Cundiff defines low-sodium products as those that contain 140 mg of sodium or less per serving. Finding such products is not as difficult as it once was, thanks to the many new healthy options hitting store shelves.

“We don't need as much sodium as people think, and the market is starting to trend in that direction,” she said. “There's been a lot more response from manufacturers.”

She conveys the message that sodium occurs naturally in low quantities in fruits and vegetables, so people are getting sodium without knowing it.

During American Heart Month, endcap displays at Big Y highlighted Morton's Salt Substitute, a potassium chloride product designed for people on a doctor-recommended restricted-sodium diet.

Likewise, Big Y's Taylor devoted an entire section in the chain's January/February edition of “Living Well Eating Smart” to the subject. The health and wellness newsletter explained that while fat (specifically saturated and trans fats) receives most of the attention in the fight against heart disease, sodium plays a crucial role as well.

The newsletter defined “sodium sensitivity,” a condition that's rarely screened for, yet affects many people. It occurs when increased sodium consumption increases blood pressure.

“The lay population often doesn't think about sodium or make a change in their diets until they are diagnosed,” said Taylor.

The publication listed a variety of low-sodium packaged foods on the market, including:

• Del Monte No-Salt-Added and 50% Less Salt vegetables.

• Francesco Rinaldi No-Salt-Added Pasta Sauce.

• Kitchen Basics Unsalted Beef and Chicken Cooking Stocks.

So many stocks and broths are high in sodium, but Kitchen Basics has only a little naturally occurring sodium, no added salt,” Taylor noted.

Since the taste for salt is acquired, it's easily reversible by gradually decreasing consumption. In doing so, taste buds will adjust, Taylor said.

Taylor suggests giving it a try with canned vegetables. First, she said, simply rinse a regular can of vegetables. After a few days, try mixing regular canned vegetables with reduced-salt vegetables. Soon after, mix 50% less salt vegetables with no-salt-added vegetables. Finally, make a complete switch to no-salt-added vegetables.

“It's hard for adults to change their eating habits, so we encourage them to make the switch gradually,” Taylor said.

The same can be tried in the salty snacks category, by first switching to Wise lightly salted chips and then moving to Wise unsalted chips.

“This brand is a great alternative for people who like chips but are watching their sodium intake,” she said.

Taylor stresses that children should be taught about low-sodium living at an early age.

“Parents can give their kids low-sodium crackers and other foods to get them used to low-sodium foods,” she said.

Sodium Sources

Many different sodium compounds are added to foods. Anything with the words “soda” or “sodium” or the symbol “Na” on the label means that sodium compounds are present.

The following sodium compounds can be found on various ingredient labels:

Salt (sodium chloride) — Used in cooking or at the table; used in canning and preserving.

Monosodium glutamate (also called MSG) — A seasoning used in home, restaurant and hotel cooking and in many packaged, canned and frozen foods.

Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) — Sometimes used to leaven breads and cakes.

Baking powder — Used to leaven quick breads and cakes.

Disodium phosphate — Found in some quick-cooking cereals and processed cheeses.

Sodium alginate — Used in many chocolate milks and ice creams to make a smooth mixture.

Sodium benzoate — Used as a preservative in many condiments such as relishes, sauces and salad dressings.

Sodium hydroxide — Used in food processing to soften and loosen the skins of ripe olives and certain fruits and vegetables.

Sodium nitrite — Used in cured meats and sausages.

Sodium propionate — Used in pasteurized cheese and in some breads and cakes to inhibit growth of molds.

Sodium sulfite — Used to bleach certain fruits, such as maraschino cherries; also used as a preservative in some dried fruits, such as prunes.

SOURCE: The American Heart Association