Most Americans consume 3,400 milligrams of salt each day. Problem is, that's more than twice the limit of what federal guidelines recommend for most adults.
People have long known that too much salt is bad. But most haven't worried too much about it.
That's all changed with the publicity that too much sodium greatly increases the chance of developing hypertension, heart disease and stroke, which cause about 800,000 deaths nationwide and cost billions in health care.
Since limiting salt intake can easily prevent this, sodium has become that latest target in the war on ingredients that can cause chronic disease, much along the lines of trans fat.
The more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium that Americans consume each day is equivalent to 1.5 teaspoons of salt. The recommended maximum daily intake of sodium is 2,300 milligrams per day for adults, about 1 teaspoon of salt. The recommended adequate intake of sodium is 1,500 milligrams per day, and people over 50 need even less.
Simply reducing the amount sprinkled on food won't help, as only 11% of sodium in the average diet comes from the saltshaker.
“Even if you removed the saltshaker from the table, it would have a small impact on sodium in the diet,” Barbara Ruhs, registered dietitian for Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., told SN.
That's because about 80% of sodium comes from processed foods. Soups and salty snacks aren't the only culprit. Besides adding flavor, sodium gives some foods their texture and consistency and prevents spoilage. That means it can be found in foods that don't even taste salty, like bread, cereal and muffins.
“Sodium is a very affordable preservative that's used in almost everything,” Ruhs noted.
When people are first diagnosed with heart disease, they come to Ruhs and ask what they shouldn't eat. She responds by telling them they should instead focus on what they can have.
Those looking to reduce sodium levels should, of course, opt mostly for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ruhs tells shoppers that packaged goods are not completely off limits. Thanks to reduced-sodium versions of popular brands from Frito-Lay, Campbell's, Kraft, ConAgra, Bumble Bee and other manufacturers, there are plenty of options in the Center Store.
What's important, Ruhs stresses, is to read the Nutrition Facts panel, because “reduced sodium” labels on the package may not be what they seem. Take soup. Plenty of soups are now available in reduced-sodium versions. But a closer look at the label reveals levels many are still too high for most adults.
“We tell people not to even go down the soup aisle if they have any hint of hypertension,” she said.
Likewise, she reminds shoppers that nutrition labels list sodium levels per serving. So while the sodium level may seem OK for a serving size of a certain soup, if the entire can is consumed and there are two servings per can, that means the sodium level is double the number listed on the nutrition label.
She also warns that sodium levels differ from brand to brand within the same category. So while one brand of packaged bread may have acceptable levels of sodium, another may not.
“Sodium levels vary greatly, so it's important to read the label,” she said.
Ruhs said the public would benefit if national standards were in place to define what a “reduced-” or “low-sodium” product is.
She is not alone. A new Institute of Medicine report says the Food and Drug Administration should set salt standards.
While the FDA says it is not currently working on such regulations, other sodium-reducing efforts are under way.
The National Salt Reduction Initiative, a New York City-led partnership of cities, states and national health organizations, has created voluntary reduction of salt levels in packaged and restaurant foods.
The goal of the initiative is to cut the salt in packaged and restaurant foods by 25% over five years — which would reduce the nation's salt intake by 20% and prevent many thousands of premature deaths.
Bumble Bee Foods is one of the manufacturers that supports the effort. Bumble Bee just cut sodium levels across its line of canned albacore and light meat tuna products.
Bumble Bee albacore products will now contain 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving — a reduction of 44% from average sodium levels of 250 milligrams in 2008. Light meat tuna has been reduced to 180 milligrams per serving.
Early this year, Bumble Bee released Prime Fillet Solid White Albacore Very Low Sodium in Water, containing 35 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Bumble Bee is a founding member of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation — a coalition of over 80 retailers, non-profit organizations and food and beverage manufacturers committed to helping reduce obesity, particularly childhood obesity, by 2015.
“A major commitment Bumble Bee has made as part of this coalition is to identify sodium-reduction opportunities in our products and also work to educate consumers and our employees about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” Dave Melbourne, Bumble Bee's consumer marketing senior vice president, told SN.
Retailers are highlighting low- and reduced-sodium products with in-store media and other promotional tools.
Bashas' identifies low-sodium foods (which it defines as those having 140 milligrams or less) with shelf tags on more than 200 items.
The tags are designed to show people options in each category. In the cereal aisle, for instance, raisin bran cereal does not have a tag, but oatmeal does.
At Hy-Vee, the NuVal score can help shoppers decide which products meet their dietary needs.
NuVal assigns a score from one to 100, based on a product's nutritional value (the higher, the more nutritious). The higher the sodium content, the lower the NuVal score.
At Hy-Vee's Fleur Drive location in Des Moines, Iowa, store dietitian Anne Cundiff fields an increasing number of shopper requests about how to keep sodium in check.
“It used to be that only people with hypertension were concerned about sodium,” she said. “That's not the case anymore.”
She often warns those looking to lose weight to keep reduced-fat products off their shopping lists, as they tend to have higher sodium content.
“When the fat is taken out, sodium is added in to make the product taste better,” she said.
Reducing sodium can also help those who simply feel run down.
“When people tell me that they feel sluggish, we'll go back and trace what they ate the previous day — and often find that had too much sodium,” said Cundiff.
She also educates them about fresh meat and poultry, which many are surprised to learn have added sodium to retain freshness and fluids.
So while fresh chicken is indeed healthier than processed chicken, consumers should keep gravies and other sodium-rich toppings in check.
Like Ruhs, Cundiff doesn't say that packaged foods are off limits. She recommends consumers treat these products as a once-a-day treat and opt for a reduced-sodium version.