Perryman Nutrition Column: Get Savvy about Salt

Note to Reporters: The following column is by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences at Colorado State University.

Do you keep the salt shaker on your table, often eat away from home, purchase a lot of packaged foods and buy groceries without checking food labels? If so then you’re an average American who likely consumes about 4,000 milligrams of sodium a day. Three out of four Americans have more salt in their diet than the suggested maximum, and you may be surprised to find that you are one of those people. Did you know taste alone will not reveal whether a food is low or high in sodium?

The American Heart Association and dietary guidelines recommend adults consume no more than a teaspoon of salt — 2300 milligrams of sodium chloride– a day. Most Americans would fare better to reduce their sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams.

Studies show that people who consume less than 1,000 milligrams a day of sodium do not exhibit age-related heart disease and increased blood pressure. One study showed that eating more fruits and vegetables and less sodium lowered blood pressure.

Processed foods– packaged on grocery shelves or served in restaurants — are very high in sodium and are responsible for nearly 80 percent of the sodium in the average diet. Some food manufacturers claim healthier low sodium foods don’t sell well and affect their bottom line in dollars. Looking at it from the manufacturer’s perception, why spend money developing and marketing a product that is perceived as inferior in taste to the ‘original’ product line?

Decreasing sodium in processed food is not a simple process, and although salt should be limited, it has an important role in food. Sodium functions not only to flavor food but also ensures texture for crispy crackers, firmer canned vegetables and smoother pre-packaged sauce mixes. Baking soda leavens baked goods and salt checks the action of yeast used to make bread rise. Salt also is a food preservative. There are no acceptable lower sodium substitutes for salt.

It’s also important to note that, to a degree, salt is salt. Sea salt is not a superior alternative to table salt, although it does have some trace amounts of minerals, but table salt and sea salt contain basically the same amount of sodium chloride. Choose sea salts only if you prefer the flavor and it’s in your budget.

Become your own health advocate and train your taste buds to like less salt. Following some simple steps can help you:

– Eat more whole food. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store for fresh food and minimize your purchases of pre-packaged food typically high in sodium. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium as are fresh fish and meat rather than cured and brined options.

– Eat more meals prepared at home. Restaurant meals and processed food are higher in salt. Use less boxed, processed food containing powdered sauces and seasonings and eat packaged foods with no more than 600 milligrams of sodium in one serving.

– Add flavor instead of salt. Each sprinkle of the salt shaker can add 150 milligrams of sodium. Use herbs, wine, fruit juice and flavored vinegar to enhance taste. Skip adding it to the cooking water for rice, pasta and cooked cereals.

– Use salty foods sparingly to add a burst of flavor. A small amount of finely shredded salty cheese, finely chopped brined olives or a splash of soy sauce can add a lot of flavor to veggies and pasta.

– Choose foods labeled as salt-free or low sodium.

  • Check the labels of packaged foods for the many forms of sodium salts such as sodium citrate and sodium bicarbonate.
  • Low sodium means a single serving contains no more than 140 mg sodium.
  • Very low-sodium means one serving has no more than 35 milligrams sodium.
  • Sodium-free food means no more than 5 milligrams sodium per serving.
  • Reduced or less sodium may not be a significant reduction. This statement on the label means the product has 25 percent less salt than the company’s regular version. While it may be less, it can still be too high.

– Reduce sodium in home-cooked meals by rinsing canned beans and vegetables with water.
– If you eat out, check for restaurant nutrition information online — many chain restaurants post that information.