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Jul 17, 2017

Cutting Back on Salt in Processed Foods

Though the sodium in some processed foods has been reduced, most Americans still consume too much salt.

Despite reductions in the sodium content of processed foods over the past 15 years, most Americans still consume too much salt, based on a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Excessive sodium intake has become a major public health concern over the past few decades. While we know too much salt increases risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, an estimated 90% of U.S. children and adults exceed sodium guidelines. Most of this salt comes from processed and restaurant foods, which are popular among U.S. families.

Thanks to efforts like the National Salt Reduction Initiative, companies like Nestle and General Mills have pledged to reduce the sodium content of their foods. This initiative was started in 2009 with the goal of reducing sodium in packaged and restaurant foods by 25% over five years.

To see how we’re doing, researchers analyzed data from the Nielson Homescan Consumer Panel, which tracked grocery purchases among U.S. households from 2000–2014. The study used bar code scanning of supermarket receipts to record packaged food purchases among 172,042 households.

The good news is that from 2000 to 2014, the amount of sodium that households got from packaged foods decreased by nearly 400 mg a day. The sodium content of packaged food purchases also decreased by 12% over this same period. Researchers note that significant reductions were noted in high-sodium foods, such as condiments, sauces, dips and salty snacks.

However, authors also found that more than 98% of households still had packaged food purchases that exceeded guidelines for sodium density. That means the ratio of sodium to total calorie content was still higher than dietary guidelines recommend.

Authors note that their study did not assess restaurant foods, which is a major source of sodium in the American diet.

The take-home message, according to authors, is that we still have work to do when it comes to reducing sodium consumption. While we’ve made significant progress in reducing the sodium content of processed foods, it hasn’t been enough to completely change the U.S. diet. Most Americans continue to consume too much salt, and additional efforts are needed to reduce sodium consumption and improve public health.

Questions for You to Consider

  • 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).

  • 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

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