Mining for hidden salt

You can easily tick off a list of salty, sodium-rich foods: potato chips, popcorn, hot dogs, pizza, pickles, and more. But there are plenty of high-sodium foods you probably aren't aware of. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Americans get almost one-third of their sodium from breads and rolls, chicken and chicken dishes, pizza, egg dishes, and pasta dishes. That's partly because these foods contain added salt and partly because we eat them so often. Here's another staggering number: up to 80% of the salt in your food was put there by someone other than you.

Why does salt matter? Your body needs a little bit of the sodium in salt to contract muscles, send nerve impulses, and maintain a healthy balance of fluids. But too much sodium can increase blood pressure, make the heart work harder, thicken and stiffen blood vessels, and more. Higher salt and sodium consumption have been linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

How can you avoid these hidden salt mines? Read food labels carefully. Look at both the amount of sodium per serving and the recommended daily sodium allowance percentage. Shop for products labeled "salt free," or "no salt added," or "low-sodium." Avoid condiments such as soy sauce, ketchup, teriyaki sauce, and salad dressings, which tend to be loaded with salt.

Another good strategy is to limit your use of prepared and processed foods, which tend to be made with a lot of salt. Adding more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables to your diet can also lower sodium and increase potassium.

Restaurant foods are often loaded with salt. Many restaurants now offer low-sodium choices. If your food is being made to order, don't hesitate to ask that it be made without salt.

For more on how salt intake affects your health, buy Reducing Sugar and Salt: Strategies for Minimizing Risks to Your Health, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.