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Jun 15, 2017

The Bulk of U.S. Salt Intake Comes From Processed Foods

Salt added during cooking and at the table accounted for a small percentage of daily sodium intake.

Putting down the salt shaker may not be enough to help Americans reduce their sodium intake, based on a recent study that found processed and restaurant foods account for 70% of adults’ dietary sodium intake.

Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this study assessed multiple sources of sodium intake in the typical U.S. diet. A total of 450 adults participated in the study, completing a baseline office visit to assess their health, along with four telephone interviews about their diet. During interviews, participants reported their dietary consumption over the past 24 hours and explained how their foods were prepared.

Participants included a diverse population from three different locations in the United States, including Birmingham, Alabama; Palo Alto, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

After analysis, researchers found that salt added to food outside the home—which includes processed and restaurant foods—accounted for more than two-thirds of participants’ daily sodium intake. The highest sodium consumption from processed foods was among young adults between 18 and 29 years old.

Foods that are naturally higher in sodium were the next highest contributor, accounting for 14% of participants’ total sodium intake. That includes foods like chicken, meat, spinach and even carrots, which naturally contain some sodium.

Salt added during cooking and at the table only accounted for 5–6% of daily sodium intake.

Why does it matter? Studies have shown that consuming too much salt increases blood pressure, which is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide. Current guidelines recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg a day, with even lower thresholds for certain adults. However, data from 2009–2012 shows that up to 94% of Americans exceed these limits. While many adults figure hiding the salt shaker is enough to reduce sodium consumption, findings suggest it won’t make a dent in most Americans’ diets.

Thus, findings support the 2010 recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, which encourage reducing sodium in processed foods to reduce overall sodium intake in the United States. After all, experts argue that if the majority of our sodium is coming from processed and restaurant foods, then we’ve got to go straight to the source in order to reduce sodium intake and combat high blood pressure.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What can I do to reduce my sodium intake?
  • Most of the sodium you get each day comes from processed foods rather than salt you use in cooking and at the table. Here are some tips to help you shake the sodium out of your diet: 

    • Avoid prepared foods. High sodium foods include:

      • Salty snacks such as chips and pretzels
      • Canned soups and sauces
      • Cured meats such as bacon and ham
      • Foods packed in salt water such as pickles, olives, and canned tuna
      • Frozen pizzas and dinners
      • Fast food

    • Use fresh foods whenever possible. Good choices include:

      • Fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables without added salt
      • Fresh meats, fish, and poultry rather than cooked or prepared items
      • Herbs and spices as seasoning instead than salt

    • Learn to read food labels.  Look at the “Nutrition Facts” panel on the label of packaged foods. This will tell you how much sodium is in the food.  When figuring out your sodium intake from the food label, keep in mind:

      • The milligrams (mg) listed is per serving. It is not for the whole package.  If you eat more or less than what they consider one serving, you’ll have to do the math to figure out how much sodium you are getting.

      • The percent of daily value (% DV) is based on 2400 mg a day, not the recommended 1500 mg. That means the sodium in a serving is a higher percent of your daily limit than what is listed on the label.

    • Choose carefully in restaurants. Restaurant food is high in sodium. Some ways to eat out and still keep your sodium level under control include:

      • Having your meal prepared without added salt
      • Asking that sauces, gravies, and salad dressings be served on the side
      • Selecting fresh vegetables, fruits, and salads and plain meats or fish from the menu
  • What is a heart-healthy diet?

  • A heart-healthy diet is full of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and includes low-fat dairy, fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet. It’s important to limit intake of added sugars, salt (sodium) and bad fats (saturated and trans fats).

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