Processed Foods: Where is all that salt coming from?

Updated:Feb 12,2017

man reading nutrition facts label in storeCongratulations. You’re taking steps to reduce the sodium in your diet.

Instead of picking up that salt shaker, you’re leaving it right where it is. In the kitchen you’re spicing up your food in healthier ways, maybe using lemon juice, balsamic vinegar or other spices ... or you’re using far less or eliminating salt in recipes.

Now here’s the bad news:

You may not be doing enough to lower your risk of high blood pressure, which raises your risk of coronary heart disease or stroke.

That’s because more than 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from salt added to processed foods. In other words, we often don’t even know we’re eating it. And while cutting table salt is wise, it may only be putting a tiny dent in your sodium total.

“Sodium shows up in canned soups, salad dressings, and even products that don’t immediately come to mind when we think of ‘salty’ foods, such as pasta, bread and cereals,” said Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., .a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a volunteer for the American Heart Association. 

With so much salt in our food, it’s no wonder the average American gets more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day. That’s more than double the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams. Manufacturers use salt to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but very little is needed in the diet – it’s estimated that the body needs less than 500 mg sodium a day to perform its functions, an amount much lower than what the average American consumes.   

In an ideal world we’d all handpick fresh ingredients and cook them at home, thus ensuring a limited sodium intake. In the real world, however, we don’t always have time to cook. And who doesn’t enjoy eating out from time to time? So what’s a real-life solution to uncover this hidden enemy?

Learning to tell the difference.

The secret to becoming a sodium sleuth is knowledge.

“Whether you’re walking down a grocery store aisle or ordering at your favorite restaurant, there are ways to limit sodium if you know what to look for,” Johnson said.

In the supermarket, your best ally is the Nutrition Facts Label on product packages, which lists how much sodium is in each serving. As a guideline, to include a “sodium free or salt free” claim on the label, a product cannot exceed 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.  A product with a “low sodium” claim must not exceed 140 mg per serving.  A “no salt added or unsalted” claim on the label does not mean the food is “sodium free.”  Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium.

Also, look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part a heart-healthy diet. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification. Learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program and to find foods that are currently certified.

When eating out, choose restaurants where food is cooked to order. And remember that communication is key. Ask your server about the sodium content of menu items, and when ordering, specify that you want your dish to be prepared without salt. Limit table salt as well as condiments that typically have high amounts of sodium, such as soy sauce, and garnishes such as pickles or olives. For more tips, see the American Heart Association’s online content on “Dining Out.”

Be sure to keep in mind that different brands and restaurant preparation of the same foods may have different sodium levels. The American Heart Association's Heart-Check mark—whether in the grocery store or restaurant--helps shoppers quickly and reliably find foods that can help you build a heart-healthy diet.

More resources on sodium:

Last reviewed on 04/14

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