April 24, 2015—Many packaged foods sold across the United States are high in sodium. Really high in sodium. In fact, for a product to carry the label “healthy,” 1 serving must contain less than 481 milligrams of sodium, as well as meet other requirements. In a new study, researchers sampled popular products from the top 10 food categories known to contribute the most sodium to the American diet, including pizza, soups and bread, and found that less than half would meet the sodium requirements to get the “healthy” label.
Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, heart failure and kidney disease.
More than 90 percent of American adults consume more sodium than recommended, and avoiding excess sodium is 1 way to help prevent high blood pressure. While research has shown that high blood pressure rates vary by region, it was unclear if there were also differences in sodium distribution throughout the nation. To see if there was any connection, researchers assessed sodium content in popular food products in different geographic areas.
For this study, researchers examined data for 3 census divisions: the South Atlantic, East North Central and Pacific. These regions represented about 50 percent of the U.S. population and reflected areas with respectively high, medium and low levels of hypertension.
Using the Nielsen ScanTrack database, researchers looked at branded products sold in U.S. grocery stores (not including warehouse stores and Walmart) with annual sales of $2 million or more in 2009. Using regional sales data, researchers identified a total of 3,974 popular products from the top 10 food categories that contribute the most sodium to the U.S. diet. They matched 3,876 of them with nutrition fact panel information.
A nation of high sodium
Geographically, there were no significant differences in the sodium levels of foods sold across the 3 regions.
However, when evaluated against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration‘s (FDA) rules for using the “healthy” label, researchers did determine other significant findings about sodium content in the United States:
- More than 70 percent of pizzas, pasta mixed dishes and meat mixed dishes exceeded FDA “healthy” label standards for sodium.
- 50 to 70 percent of cold cuts, soups and sandwiches exceeded the FDA “healthy” sodium standards.
- Fewer than 10 percent of breads, savory snacks and cheeses exceeded FDA “healthy” sodium standards.
Based on this food environment, researchers concluded that meeting government sodium recommendations may be difficult for consumers regardless of where they live.
Learn more in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.
Take home message
We all need sodium—it’s an essential nutrient needed for health. Usually we get it from salt, aka sodium chloride. Salt helps maintain the body’s balance of fluids. However, nearly all Americans consume more salt than they need—and most of it’s added to food during processing, not at the table or in cooking.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that no one get more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day—about a teaspoon of table salt. Some people should get even less: African Americans; people older than 50; and those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should get no more than 1,500 milligrams.
Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure. This condition makes the heart work harder and can lead to serious health problems. Certain groups should get less sodium because they tend to be more sensitive to its blood pressure effects.
While the study illustrated the amount of excess sodium found in packaged foods, there are steps you can take to help maintain a healthy intake of sodium. The FDA and USDA recommend:
- Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Flavoring your food with pepper and other herbs and spices rather than salt.
- Choosing unsalted snacks.
- Eating foods that are rich in potassium. This nutrient can help lessen sodium’s impact on blood pressure. Leafy greens, green vegetables and fruits from vines are all high-potassium foods.
- Read nutrition labels. Look for “% Daily Value” or “%DV” for sodium. Foods listed as 5 percent or less are low in sodium. Any food with 20 percent or higher is considered high in sodium.