Have you ever enjoyed a delicious meal, then thought about how much salt you just ate? Or read a nutrition label on a can of soup or a loaf of bread to see how much sodium is in a serving size? If you’re like most Americans, probably not. Unfortunately, most Americans are less concerned about their sodium intake than they are about calories, fat and sugar.
Salt (a.k.a. Sodium Chloride) is an essential nutrient; however, salt contains sodium and too much sodium can cause high blood pressure — a known contributor to cardiovascular disease and stroke. An estimated 68 million adults in the U.S. suffer from high blood pressure, and approximately 2,200 die from cardiovascular disease each day. The reality is, unless your doctor has ordered you to follow a low-salt diet, you probably don’t realize the amount of sodium in your food.
How Much Salt = Too Much Sodium?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends an intake of no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day (about one teaspoon of salt) for approximately 30 percent of the adult population.For the remaining 70 percent —those 51 years and older, and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease—the recommended amount is no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day (about three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt). Americans typically consume upwards of 3,400mg of sodium per day (1.5 teaspoons of salt)—for many, this is more than twice their recommended daily amount!
Although the terms salt and sodium are often used interchangeably, they are not exactly the same. Sodium comprises about 40 percent of salt. Therefore less salt equals less sodium. It is important to understand this difference in order to encourage and make healthier choices. In the U.S. sodium is measured in milligrams (mgs) while salt is measured in teaspoons. When cooking and reading nutrition labels remember this conversion: 1/4 teaspoon of salt equals 600mg of sodium.
Contrary to popular belief, consumption of sodium has less to do with the salt shaker and much more to do with how food is processed and how meals are prepared. Sodium is used during food processing and preparation for many purposes such as taste, composition, cost and preservation. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists the top 10 sodium sources: bread/rolls, cold cuts/cured meats, pizza, fresh/processed poultry, soups, sandwiches, cheese, pasta mixed dishes, meat mixed dishes, and savory snacks.
Food for thought: The next time you decide to have a turkey sandwich for lunch or a burrito for dinner, you are eating upwards of 1500mg of sodium in one sitting — and this doesn’t include the bag of chips or side of guacamole! If you are a fan of Chipotle restaurants, try using their interactive nutrition calculator to see how much sodium is in your favorite burrito. The results may astonish you!
Reducing Salt Reduces Sodium
Public health leaders worldwide are advocating for voluntary industry standards, sodium reduction goals and public policies to get the excess salt out of our diets. The United Kingdom launched a public education campaign in 2004 with the character “Sid the Slug” to warn the public that salt can cause harmful health effects to humans too. Two years later the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency set voluntary salt reduction standards for the food industry in 85 food categories, and by 2008 the UK saw a 20-30 percent reduction in the amount of sodium in processed foods and a decrease in the average sodium intake from approximately 3,800mg/day to 3,400mg/day.
In 2008, The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched a collaborative project called The National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) with industry partners including Kraft Foods, Au Bon Pain, and Campbell Soup Company to achieve voluntary sodium reduction in specific products. Kraft recently announced it's on track to reduce sodium by an average of 10 percent across its North American food portfolio by 2013. NSRI is scheduled to release an industry salt reduction progress report in early 2013.
In 2010, CDC launched the Sodium Reduction in Communities Program (SRCP) in five sites in California (Shasta County, Los Angeles County), Kansas (Shawnee County), New York City, and New York State (Broome County and Schenectady County) to demonstrate the value of a multi-faceted approach, combining support for the implementation of sodium reduction policies, public education campaigns, and evaluation activities. Policies typically included sodium guidelines for restaurant menus, school meals, public and private procurement policies, accessibility of low-sodium foods, and point-of-purchase labeling.
The work on sodium reduction is making headway! Stay tuned for more sodium reduction efforts both nationally and internationally. In the meantime WATCH THE SALT!
This blog was prepared by Shari A. Dawkins, J.D., MPH, Visiting Attorney Fellow, Network for Public Health Law – at the Public Health Law Center of William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul, MN.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.