If you don’t, it might explain why you eat too much of it. Someone who wants to cut down on salt might pass up salty food like fries and feel virtuous for choosing a salad.
But balsamic vinaigrette on that salad may have higher sodium content than the fries—at least if you fix them at home.
Graham crackers have almost as much salt as potato chips, and more than salted nuts.
Let’s review some basic facts about salt, find the hidden salt our food, and consider how to manage our salt intake.
The benefits and dangers of salt
Sodium is one of a long list of nutrients our body needs but that endanger our health if we get too much.
The average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium every day. That amounts to a teaspoon and a half.We shouldn’t get more than about 2,300 mg, or about a teaspoon. In fact, we ought to have less than that.
The cells in our bodies take what they need from the food circulating in the blood and return waste. The kidneys filter out both the waste and whatever nutrients the cells didn’t use. When we eat too much sodium, we overwhelm the kidneys’ ability to clean it out of our system.
Sodium that gets past the kidneys and remains in the blood attracts and holds water. Excessive water makes a greater volume of blood than the heart can pump effectively. That, in turn, puts excessive pressure on our arteries.
Excessive salt will eventually lead to various heart and kidney diseases.
Nearly all the foods we eat contain some sodium in their natural state. Then we add more when we cook, and maybe still more at the table.
It doesn’t all come from the salt shaker. Some condiments have high sodium content. A tablespoon of soy sauce, for example, has an entire gram of it.
Some foods have always required salt.
- Yeast bread must have sodium in order for the dough to rise.
- Salt has preserved meat for millennia. You can’t have bacon, ham, or sausage without it.
- Cheese-making likewise requires salt.
Sodium and potassium
Potassium helps flush excess sodium out of the body. Potassium also relaxes blood vessel walls and reduces blood pressure.
We should eat more potassium than sodium.
Dietary guidelines recommend about 4,700 mg of potassium per day for adults. Men only eat about 3,200 and women about 2,400.
At the same time most Americans consume too much sodium, we don’t get enough potassium. Eating more potassium, though, is no substitute for reducing sodium content.
Prepared foods, both from the grocery store and restaurants, provide too much sodium and not enough potassium.
The best way to restore the proper balance is to eat plenty of fresh or frozen produce and otherwise choose foods that have not salt added during processing.
Plenty of foods provide more potassium than sodium. A cup of white beans, for example, has 11 grams of sodium and more than 1000 milligrams of potassium if you cook dried beans yourself. Canned beans, on the other hand, have a lot of salt added.
Dairy products are also a good source of potassium, but naturally have more sodium than other foods.
Substituting potassium chloride for table salt (sodium chloride) can also help restore the balance, but it carries associated health risks, so don’t start using it without talking to your doctor.
The food industry
If you make it yourself, you need balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and maybe some spices. None of those ingredients contain any sodium.
The food industry wants its products to be palatable. The means more than just tasting good.
In scientific terms, palatable foods stimulate our appetite and make us want to eat more. Palatable recipes carefully combine sugar, fat, and salt with the effect that the food becomes addictive.
Restaurant food—especially fast food—and prepared foods from the grocery store has lots of hidden salt. We eat salty food even if it doesn’t taste salty.
So for a healthy diet, it’s not enough to choose low-sodium versions of, say, crackers. Read the labels to make sure the manufacturer hasn’t compensated for lower sodium by increasing fat or sugar.
Sodium content of groceries
Here’s what I found looking at sodium content on food labels in the grocery store:
|Sodium in mg
|Boxed meals, including Hamburger Helper, macaroni and cheese
|Bread (both white and whole grain, per slice)
|Canned beans, including baked beans
|Up to 600 (1)
|Cereal (including organic brands)
|Cheese: cottage cheese
|Cheese: sliced American, individually wrapped
|Cheese: natural cheese
|Crackers: cheese crackers
|Crackers: graham crackers
|Crackers: reduced sodium (including saltines with unsalted tops)
|Frozen entrees (single serving)
|Frozen fried potatoes
|Luncheon meats (I didn't check the deli department)
|Nuts and peanuts, reduced sodium
|Nuts and peanuts, salted
|Snacks: Potato chips
|Snacks: other chips
|Vegetable juices (Tomato, V8)
|Vegetable juices, reduced sodium
|(1) A nearby can of red beans and rice had 1000 mg of sodium.
(2) Campbell's chicken noodle soup has 890 milligrams. Its reduced sodium chicken noodle soup still checks in with 660 grams.
(3) These products display a wide range. Dr. Atkins' Chicken and Broccoli Alfredo has 1070 mg of sodium. Luve brand products usually have only 400 mg, some much less.
(4) Chicken lunch meat has more salt than ham.
(5) Most salted nuts have less than 110 mg of sodium.
(6) The highest sodium content I noticed is in Aunt Jemima's mix with whole wheat.
(7) Tomato juice must have less salt than formerly. I stopped buying tomato juice years ago when I noticed that one serving had 51% of my sodium allowance. The labels I checked for this article said 25%.
Tips for reducing salt in your diet
- Eat more fresh food and less processed food.
- Read labels at the store when you buy processed foods to find the hidden salt. Compare not only sodium, but also sugar and fat.
- When cooking, use half the salt the recipe calls for. Or omit it entirely.
- Use herbs, spices, or fruit juice to add flavor, if necessary, in place of salt.
- Don’t put the salt shaker on the table. That will reduce the temptation to add more salt.
The end of overeating: taking control of the insatiable American appetite / David A. Kessler (New York: Rodale Press, 2009)
A primer on potassium / American Heart Association, American Stroke Association
Shifting the balance of sodium and potassium in your diet / Harvard University. T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Sodium: how to tame your salt habit / Mayo Clinic Staff