By Kathy Cunningham

saltWhen was the last time you enjoyed a delicious meal, and 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?  For most of us, unless you have been told to watch your salt/sodium consumption, we don’t give it a second thought.

Most American adults (and children, too) are eating too much sodium. In fact, we are eating about 3,400 mg of sodium a day, when most of us should have only 1,500 mg per day.

But let’s not confuse, sodium with salt (a.k.a. Sodium Chloride) which is an essential nutrient our body needs and accounts for only about 5% of sodium intake. The terms salt and sodium are often used interchangeably, however they are not exactly the same. Salt is comprised of about 40 percent of sodium.  Too much sodium can cause high blood pressure — a known contributor to cardiovascular disease and stroke.

In honor of National Heart Month, now is the perfect time to get started on a new, heart-healthy lifestyle that includes checking the amount of sodium content in the foods we eat.

 Salt /Sodium, how much is too much?

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). People 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.

It is important to understand the difference between salt and sodium to make healthier choices. In the United States 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. The Institutes of Medicine and the Massachusetts Food Standards recommend that each serving of food have less than 290 mg of sodium, or less than 490 total mg of sodium for each meal.

Sodium Sources

The overconsumption of sodium has less to do with the salt added during cooking 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 food  sources of sodium to be: bread/rolls, cold cuts/cured meats, pizza, fresh/processed poultry, soups, sandwiches, cheese, mixed pasta dishes, mixed meat dishes, and savory snacks.

Reducing Sodium

To support people in their attempts to reduce sodium intake, public health leaders worldwide are advocating for voluntary industry sodium reduction goals and public policies to get the excess sodium out of our diets.  The United Kingdom first 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 sodium 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.  This decreased the population’s average sodium intake from approximately 3,800mg/day to 3,400mg/day. There’s still has room for improvement but it’s a great start.

In 2008, The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched a collaborative project called The National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) similar to the United Kingdom model 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.

The work on food supply sodium reduction is making headway both nationally and internationally. In the meantime as an individual, we can all WATCH THE SODIUM!

For tips on reducing sodium intake read CDC’s Get the Facts: Sodium Reduction Tips,  and  the American Heart Association’s Shaking the Salt Habit webpage.

Kathy Cunningham, M.Ed, is a registered dietician at the Boston Public Health Commission.