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.
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.
But since few people eat only a half a cup of pasta sauce during a meal, someone could easily consume 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams of sodium in a single sitting.
And V8 "Heart Healthy" vegetable juice has 480 milligrams of sodium per 1-cup serving -- the highest amount of sodium the government allows per serving in a product labeled "healthy."
American Heart Association Chief Science Officer Rose Marie Robertson, MD, tells WebMD that it is important that people follow serving sizes if they are trying to restrict salt.
"You have to read the labels, and those labels should be made as easy to understand as possible," she says.
Shaking the Salt Habit
So what are some of the best ways to keep the salt in your family's diet at reasonable levels?
Some tips from Consumer Reports include:
- Cook it yourself. It is much easier to control the salt in the foods your family eats if you cook it at home and replace some salt with spices and other flavorings like citrus juices and flavored vinegars. And use sodium-free broth as a base for homemade soups.
- Read the labels. When you purchase processed foods, compare products to find lower-sodium varieties. Some very similar products have very different sodium levels. For example, pure maple syrup has almost no sodium, but most commercial "pancake" syrups have a lot.
- Understand the claims. The federal government requires that products labeled "very low in sodium" have no more than 35 milligrams of sodium per serving, and "reduced sodium" products must have at least 25% less sodium per serving than the full-sodium version of the same food. A product labeled "healthy" can have no more than 480 milligrams of sodium per serving.
- Know the sodium heavyweights. Soy sauce has about 1,160 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon, and regular chicken bouillon has about 1,100 milligrams per packet, according to the report. Many frozen processed dinners are also loaded with sodium, as are cured meats, most cold cuts, and pickles and olives.
Robertson says most people who lower their salt intake quickly find that foods that previously tasted OK suddenly taste too salty.
"If you reduce the salt by even a modest amount, you will find that you are tasting the food more instead of the salt," she says. "This is a very simple thing that would be beneficial to most people. High blood pressure is an important risk factor for heart failure and stroke, and reducing salt is an easy way for salt-sensitive people to lower their risk."
"The food and beverage industry is committed to helping consumers meet the government's Dietary Guidelines recommendations -- including that for sodium," says Scott W. Openshaw, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "Many food companies have reformulated products or reduced the use of sodium in processed foods. Today consumers have available to them a broad range of foods containing no sodium or low sodium, or with no added salt. It is also important to note that food companies have been very successful at making incremental reductions in salt levels in food products over time that are silent to the consumer."
Openshaw stresses the importance of eating a balanced and healthy diet that's in line with the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPyramid food guidance system.
"The presence of salt and sodium-containing ingredients are always listed on food labels, and for more than a decade the Nutrition Facts panel has listed the amount of sodium and the percent Daily Value per serving," Openshaw says. "By including more fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products in their diets, consumers will see a drop in their sodium intake."