Take it easy on the salt shaker
Has your doctor advised you or someone you know to take it easy on the salt shaker? People with heart disease or hypertension (high blood pressure) have very likely heard this. So what’s the big deal? Why should a little bit of salt cause you such grief? Let me start at the beginning.
Sodium is an essential mineral that helps maintain body fluids and keeps our nerves functioning. Sodium is found naturally in most foods but many products contain added sodium during food processing. With just a bit of information you can easily identify how much sodium you’re consuming – and make some decisions to change your intake if it’s too high.
So how does the sodium get into our diet? Table salt, the most common form of sodium, is about 40 percent sodium. A level teaspoon of table salt contains about 2,300 milligrams of sodium. Additionally, some of the added forms of sodium are monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), sodium nitrite, sodium saccharin, sodium benzoate. It is also important to know that some products such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) may also contain MSG.
Under the FDA’s food labeling rules, the Daily Value for sodium is 2,400 mg. If the percent Daily Value for sodium is 5 percent or less, the food is considered low in that nutrient. So, the goal should be to select, whenever possible, foods that fit into these criteria and limit ones that contain 20 percent or more of the daily value.
For those that would rather count milligrams, the Nutrition Facts panel also gives the amount in milligrams of a food’s sodium content. This information can help consumers who monitor the milligrams of sodium they consume.
You’re not alone if you eat too much salt; the average American consumes far more sodium than is needed. We eat about 11 grams of salt (2 teaspoons) or about 4,600 milligrams of sodium per day. No single food or food group accounts for this high sodium intake. We get 10 percent from foods naturally containing sodium. An additional 15 percent comes from adding salt at the table or in cooking. The remaining 75 percent we get from foods that have sodium added during processing and manufacturing.
Some common foods with higher amounts of sodium include crackers, cheese, dried cereals, quick breads, buttermilk, and most canned and processed foods, especially vegetables. Although you might expect to find that foods with sodium will taste salty, that may not always be the case. Cottage cheese, quick breads and some over-the-counter medications fall into this category.
The closer a food is to its natural source, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and dried beans, the lower its sodium content will be. A food that is hard to recognize where it might have started, such as hot dogs or sausages, will have much more salt than an identifiable chicken leg or pork chop.
Before you despair over your favorite high-sodium foods, take a look and see if a lower-sodium product is offered. Fresh foods will always have the least sodium, but manufacturers do offer many healthy alternatives to their traditional products. Even now potato chips, crackers, and cheese are available in low-sodium varieties. The only way to know for sure is to read the ingredients and the nutritional label on the product. Remember, your individual salt tastes were learned, and believe it or not, you can lose your taste for high salt foods.
Mary Koch is a Registered Dietitian at Banner Churchill Community Hospital and the VA Lahontan Valley Outpatient Clinic. Send your nutrition questions to Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org.