When you scan food labels, whatâ€™s the first stat you check? Iâ€™d venture a guess that for most people, itâ€™s calories. Our eyes then veer to other nutrients â€” fats, carbs, sugar, fiber. But in my experience, not enough people pause to review the sodium content before making their choice.
Thatâ€™s unsettling, because all of us â€” young and old, high blood pressure or not â€” should be paying attention to how much sodium weâ€™re getting from packaged foods. Eating a high-salt diet raises blood pressure and increases the risk of other long-term health problems, including heart attack and stroke. While major health organizations currently disagree on how low we should go (many advise less than 1500 milligrams sodium per day for at-risk populations, while the Institute of Medicine recently concluded there wasnâ€™t enough evidence at this time to recommend reductions below 2300 milligrams), they all agree that reducing the populationâ€™s sodium intake from the current excessive levels is an important public health goal.
Salt: The Other Sugar
Salt isnâ€™t as hot button an issue as sugar, even though both have well-established, detrimental effects on health. That may be in part because salt doesnâ€™t have a direct link to weight and obesity, which is such an emotionally-charged issue. You can get away with eating a high-salt diet for decades of your life without seeing the damage on the outside â€” around your waistline and thighs â€” but chances are, it will catch up with you eventually, in the form of high blood pressure and possibly something worse. The short-term benefits of a low-sodium diet arenâ€™t as tangible, and the long-term problems are far away, which makes it harder to convince the public itâ€™s a high health priority.
On top of that, itâ€™s more difficult to conceptualize how much salt is in foods. Health experts can grab the publicâ€™s attention by dramatically unveiling the 17 teaspoons of straight sugar found in a 20-ounce bottle of soda, but even with the saltiest foods, weâ€™re talking about fractions of a teaspoon. The message just isnâ€™t as powerful.
And because we still donâ€™t pay enough attention to sodium as we should, companies are able to get away with putting outrageous amounts of salt into processed and restaurant foods, which supply about 75 percent of the salt in the U.S. diet. Sure, we might think to check the sodium in obvious offenders, like soup and other canned foods, but weâ€™re less likely to pay attention in foods that donâ€™t scream â€œsaltyâ€, like breads, cereals, salad dressings, and frozen meals. (Heads up: Bread is actually the number one source of sodium in our diet, because we eat so much of it.)
Health Foods Can Be Salt Bombs
Whatâ€™s more, there are a huge number of seemingly healthy products â€” with an otherwise very appealing overall nutrition profile â€” that have ridiculously high sodium numbers. Here are some that stood out on a recent trip to the supermarket:
- Whole-Wheat Bread: I spotted brands with 200 mg per slice, or 400 mg per sandwich. Thatâ€™s 17 percent of the maximum daily recommended intake (2300 mg). I also came across a whole wheat English muffin with 530 mg (23 percent)!
- â€œHealthierâ€ Chips: One brand of lentil chips had 420 mg (18 percent) per serving. As a comparison, thatâ€™s about 2.5 times as much as a serving of regular potato chips.
- Low-Fat Cottage Cheese: Some brands clocked in at 450 mg per 1/2 cup (20 percent). Yikes!
- Hummus: Some flavors logged 140 mg per 2 Tbsp. If you ate 3 servings (a typical portion for a meal), youâ€™d be consuming 420 mg (18 percent).
- Salad Dressing: Some â€œall-naturalâ€ and â€œorganicâ€ brands soared as high as 450 mg (20 percent) per 2 Tbsp.
- Whole-Grain Cereals: A few cereals went as high as 270 mg (12 percent) per serving, and many people pour more than one serving.
- Veggie Burgers: Many were in the 400 range, and one brand went as high as 500 mg (22 percent) per patty. Eat it on a salty bun and the sodium soars even higher.
- Pasta Sauce: These numbers shocked even me â€” some â€œorganicâ€ and â€œall-naturalâ€ brands topped 650 mg in just 1/2 cup.
Thatâ€™s a real shame, because outside of their high sodium levels, many of these products are good options with clean ingredient lists.