Memo from MFJ

Getting to Safe Sodium

June 2013

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Eating less red meat? Check. Avoiding trans fat? Check. Eating more vegetables and fruit? Check. Limiting sodium to a healthful level? Oops.

Of all the aspects of a healthy diet, perhaps the toughest one to achieve is keeping sodium down. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that younger adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Middle-aged and older people, African Americans, and anyone with high blood pressure should aim for no more than 1,500 mg per day.

To cut the salt, eat more fresh, unprocessed foods.

But the average American consumes roughly 3,800 mg of sodium a day—men more, women less. That extra sodium may be the most dangerous thing in our diet, unnecessarily killing tens of thousands of people every year due to heart attacks and strokes.

To give you a sense of how hard it is to get down to 1,500 milligrams of sodium, consider this: two slices of bread have 200 to 400 mg, just half a cup of a typical spaghetti sauce has 300 to 600 mg, and a mere cup of canned soup has 400 to 800 mg. And you’d blow your daily sodium allowance to smithereens by eating a Smoked Turkey Breast sandwich at Panera (1,650 mg) or a Lasagna Classico at Olive Garden (2,830 mg).

Roughly 80 percent of the sodium we consume—most of it from salt—comes from prepared foods. That's why the Center for Science in the Public Interest (publisher of Nutrition Action) and others have pressed the food industry to stop dumping so much salt into their products. What's more, we’ve urged the Food and Drug Administration to set specific limits on sodium.

Food manufacturers argue that reductions should be voluntary, but in 2010 the Institute of Medicine concluded that voluntary reductions over the previous 40 years had no effect. (We're actually consuming more sodium now than we did then.) The FDA should limit sodium in packaged foods, the IOM declared.

But if we waited for the FDA to regulate sodium or for industry to voluntarily make major reductions, we’d be eating too much salt for decades.

And even if all companies cut their sodium by 25 percent—which may not be feasible—we'd still be consuming about 3,000 mg per day. They'd have to slash the sodium in half for us to reach 2,300 mg a day. Forget about 1,500 mg!

The good news: we don't have to wait. We can change our own diets today, starting with reading labels and choosing lower-sodium brands.

Better yet, we can eat more fresh, unprocessed foods. After all, most natural foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are low in sodium. (A whole pound of broccoli has just 150 mg.) And many are rich in potassium, which helps lower blood pressure. A roasted chicken breast has only around 100 mg of sodium (if it hasn't been injected with salty broth). Oatmeal? It's virtually sodium free.

See you at the farmers' market or the produce display!

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is the nonprofit health-advocacy group that publishes Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI mounts educational programs and presses for changes in government and corporate policies.

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