Beware of the Salt Shockers

Dozens of foods can drive your sodium consumption way past recommended levels.

By Katherine Kam
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You know salty snacks like chips, pretzels, and crackers are loaded with sodium. But do you realize most of the salt you consume comes from the foods you're picking at the grocery store? It's not just the salt shaker, says Rosemary Yurczyk, MS, RD, CDE, dietitian and diabetes educator at the University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

Government guidelines recommend that people consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day -- about one teaspoon of salt. So if you eat three meals a day, you'll want to stay within 800 milligrams of sodium per meal, Yurczyk says.

Trouble is, it's so easy to go overboard, even if you just want to add some extra flavor to your poultry or a little sauce over the pasta. Check out the sodium stats, reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Dehydrated onion soup mix (1 packet): 3,132 milligrams
  • Seasoned bread crumbs (1 cup): 2,111 milligrams
  • Spaghetti sauce (1 cup): 1,203 milligrams

But what if you just want a cup of soup, or you often microwave a frozen meal for lunch or dinner? What if you simply must have that favorite canned veggie side dish your Grandma always served? Check your numbers:

  • Canned chicken noodle soup (1 cup): 1,106 milligrams
  • Frozen turkey and gravy (5 ounces): 787 milligrams
  • Canned cream-style corn (1 cup): 730 milligrams

Surprised? It doesn't end there.

Be careful with the flavorings you add to the goodies on the barbecue grill and under the broiler. Perhaps you'd like to drink something fruity and refreshing? What about that one little sandwich for lunch or the fact you're known to pack a little more punch on your pizza? Are there any sodium shockers there?

  • Teriyaki sauce (1 tablespoon): 690 milligrams
  • Vegetable juice cocktail (1 cup): 653 milligrams
  • Beef or pork salami (2 slices): 604 milligrams
  • Canned jalapeno peppers (1/4 cup, solids and liquids): 434 milligrams

Nutrition labels can help you to judge whether you're looking at a low-sodium food. According to Yurczyk, here's the breakdown:

  • Low-sodium food: less than 140 milligrams per serving
  • Moderate-sodium food: less than 400 milligrams per serving
  • High-sodium food: more than 400 milligrams per serving

For example, seedless raisins, at 16 milligrams of sodium per cup, are low-sodium. A piece of angel food cake, at 210 milligrams, is moderate.

Looking at labels can help you find the sodium in your grocery items. But realize that the sodium listing is for just one serving size, not the whole container, Yurczyk cautions. "If you eat two servings, you'll have to double the amount of sodium."

Labels can guide you in making better choices within food categories, too, such as breads and pastries. For instance, a croissant contains 424 milligrams of salt, compared with only 148 milligrams for one slice of whole-wheat bread.

Dangers Dining Out

Restaurant dining poses another hazard. If you frequent fast-food restaurants -- where sodium abounds in sauces, fries, lunch meats, and even salad dressings -- ask for a nutrition fact sheet, Yurczyk suggests. That way, you'll get the skinny on how much sodium is really in that biscuit with egg and sausage: 1,141 milligrams. Or that 6-inch submarine sandwich with cold cuts: 1,651 milligrams. "It's a bit scary how much sodium is in fast-food meals," she says.

Other types of restaurants aren't likely to have nutrition fact sheets. But Yurczyk says you can still make sodium-sensible choices.

What gets the thumbs down from Yurczyk? "Soup -- in restaurants, it's not likely to be low-sodium; appetizers with cheese and proscuitto and processed meats; a casserole with cheese and sausage."

And the thumbs up? "If you order fish, steamed vegetables, and a salad on the side, it's not going to be a high-sodium meal."

The Great Sodium Debate

Hillel Cohen, DrPH, a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, fired the latest salvo in the great sodium debate. His study shows that people who reported eating limited salt were actually 37% more likely to die of cardiovascular causes, such as stroke and heart disease, than people who ate larger amounts of salt. Cohen is an associate professor of epidemiology and population health.

The medical establishment has revered the low-sodium diet for so long that it's hard to get doctors to question it, he says. Cohen doesn't bother to follow the conventional wisdom himself. "I actually don't pay attention to sodium."



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