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Salt Lurks in Unsuspected Foods

Sure, Fast Food and Frozen Dinners Are Often High in Sodium, but Pancake Mix and Bagels, Too?
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 1, 2008 -- Even if you never touch a salt shaker and steer clear of potato chips and french fries, you are probably eating more salt than you think and much more than is good for you, an investigation from Consumer Reports shows.

Researchers analyzed 37 processed foods and identified some surprising sources of hidden sodium.

Editor's Note: Food Pyramid Replaced

In June 2011, the USDA replaced the food pyramid with a new plate icon.

Among the least expected findings:

  • A 1/2-cup serving of a low-fat cottage cheese had twice as much sodium (360 milligrams) as a 1-ounce serving of regular potato chips (180 milligrams).
  • A Premium Caesar Salad with grilled chicken from McDonald's had more than twice the salt (890 milligrams) as a large order of McDonald's fries (350 milligrams). And that's without the dressing.
  • A half-cup serving of Prego's Heart Smart Traditional Italian Sauce had 430 milligrams of sodium, slightly less than what the USDA allows per serving in foods labeled "healthy."
  • Breakfast foods were an unexpected source of hidden salt. A popular whole-grain bagel had 440 milligrams of sodium, a best-selling pancake mix had 200 milligrams per pancake, and raisin-bran cereals had between 230 milligrams and 350 milligrams per cup serving. A maple and brown sugar-flavored instant oatmeal had more than three times as much sodium as its original flavored version.

"One of the big surprises is that foods that you would think would be really salty, like salted nuts, have less sodium than many processed or packaged foods that don't taste salty at all," Consumer Reports Associate Health Editor Jamie Hirsh tells WebMD.

How Much Salt Is Too Much?

Government guidelines call for healthy adults to get no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, which is the equivalent of about a teaspoon of table salt. People with high blood pressure, African-Americans, and middle-aged or older adults should get no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.

But the average American eats much more than that, especially if they eat a lot of processed foods or if they eat out a lot, Hirsh says.

"Restaurant foods are a huge source of sodium," she says. "The amount of salt in some of these foods would just blow your mind. I saw a single entree offered by a national chain restaurant that had over 5,000 milligrams of sodium. That doesn't mean you can't get low-salt meals at restaurants, but you have to work at it."

The investigation found that low-fat processed foods are often higher in salt than their full-fat counterparts.

Case in point: A serving of Ruffles Original Potato Chips was found to have 10 grams of fat and 160 milligrams of sodium; a serving of the baked version of the chip had 3 grams of fat but 200 milligrams of sodium.

Even foods that claim to be heart healthy can be filled with sodium. The Prego "Heart Smart" pasta sauce with 430 milligrams of sodium in a half-cup serving carries the American Heart Association logo because it is low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

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