Harvard Health Publications

Everyday foods are top 10 sources of sodium

Posted By Patrick J. Skerrett On February 8, 2012

Many of Americans’ favorite foods are key sources of the too-much sodium we take in each day. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows breads and rolls, cold cuts, pizza, and poultry topping the list. Just 10 types of food deliver almost half of our daily sodium.

At first glance, it seems odd that breads and rolls top the list. After all, they aren’t nearly as salty as chips or cheese. But since we eat breads and rolls more often, the modest amounts of sodium they contain add up.

Food type

Percent daily
sodium contribution

Breads and rolls

7.4%

Cold cuts/cured meats

5.1%

Pizza

4.9%

Poultry

4.5%

Soups

4.3%

Hamburgers and other sandwiches

4.0%

Cheese

3.8%

Pasta mixed dishes

3.3%

Meat mixed dishes

3.2%

Chips, pretzels, and other savory snacks

3.1%

Two other interesting findings from the report:

  • Americans take in an average of 3,266 milligrams of sodium a day, or about 1½ teaspoons of salt. That’s well above the healthy target of 2,300 milligrams a day, or 1 teaspoon.
  • Almost two-thirds of our sodium (62.5%) comes from food bought in stores, and one-quarter (24.9%) comes from food bought in restaurants (which includes fast-food shops and pizza places).

The CDC gathered this information from What We Eat in America, a survey of 9,000 men, women, and children. No matter how the investigators looked at the data—by age, sex, or racial-ethnic group—the same culprits kept showing up in the top 10. There were two exceptions. Hot dogs and sausages came in number 3 among children ages 2 to 5, and number 5 among non-Hispanic blacks. Burritos, tacos, and tamales were the number 1 contributor of daily sodium among Mexican-Americans, and tortillas were number 5.

Why this matters

Almost all of the sodium Americans take in comes from salt. The body needs some sodium to balance fluids, transmit nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and regulate the flow of other substances into and out of cells. Too much sodium can increase blood pressure and make the kidneys work harder. High blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney disease, and more.

A report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine estimates that reducing Americans’ average sodium intake by 400 milligrams could prevent 28,000 deaths a year and save $7 billion a year in health care costs.

The CDC study reinforces the idea that most of the salt in our diet is hidden—added by food companies and chefs far from our view. Only about 5% of sodium is added as salt during food preparation at home, and maybe another 5% comes from salt sprinkled at the table.

The American Heart Association and others recommend getting no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt a day, and less (1,500 milligrams) for non-Hispanic blacks, everyone over age 50, and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease. Getting food companies and chefs to cut back on the amount of salt they add to prepared foods will help. Some companies are already doing this.

It also takes consumer savvy, like reading labels and asking servers about salt in food.

Do you watch your sodium intake? Do you know where most of your sodium/salt comes from?

Related Information: Hypertension: Controlling the “silent killer”

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