Salt, butter and a little sugar were common seasonings in our household growing up. My mother may have used too much salt in her cooking at times but there was a healthy respect for limits as she had to control her high blood pressure. However, home cooked meals and eating our own vegetables, dairy and chickens meant restaurant meals and buying commercially processed foods were not the routine. Today the situation is different for most of us. Our reliance, as consumers, on restaurants and commercially processed foods for our meals has increased and likewise, so has our sodium intake.
With approximately 70% of our consumption of sodium coming from commercially prepared and processed foods, the guidance for voluntary sodium reduction in these foods released earlier this month by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was welcome news from a health perspective. Yet, reducing the sodium intake in processed foods can be a challenge based on the role salt plays in food safety and functionality, as well as consumer taste preferences. Reducing sodium in what we eat is complicated and requires the efforts of the food industry and consumers. It will take more than just saying, “pass the pepper and hold the salt.”
From the Beginning
Our desire for salt is innate. After all, “salty” is one of our basic senses of taste — a sense that was developed from the beginning of time. From my food “encyclopedia” The Origins of Cooking, the use of salt is traced back to Neolithic times around 6,800 BC when its use in cooking began.1 With the creation of pottery around this time, roasting over open flames turned to stewing and braising. With these new cooking methods, the introduction of savory (salt) and sweet (honey) flavors to our food began. Early on, salt was identified as “the indispensable flavoring agent.” Additionally, from the beginning, salt’s ability to preserve food was recognized and became a lifeline as the food supply could be extended beyond daily hunting. With its long history of being used to preserve and enhance the flavor of food, the prominence of salt in our cooking and food supply today is no surprise.
Behind the FDA Guidelines
Sodium is a mineral and naturally found in all vegetables, meat, shellfish, milk and dairy products. Root vegetables — like potatoes and carrots — will contain more than a green bean due to its natural growing state of absorbing nutrients from the soil. While these are not high sources, they do contribute to our overall intake. Foods like bread, cold cuts, bacon, cheese, fast food and pizza are the biggest contributors of sodium to our diet. While the FDA’s recommended gradual sodium reduction in some processed foods may be more of a taste adjustment, others will have to consider functionality along with taste. Foods like cottage cheese and cheeses have a smaller window of reduction possibilities due to the need for sodium in ensuring the safety (preservation) and functionality of the product. In bread, salt improves the volume of the finished product due to its interaction with gluten.5 As with our bodies, salt plays a key role in food, ensuring the quality and safety of the finished product.
Even though we have a “desire” for salt, the level to which our taste buds find salt acceptable can change for better or worse.2 If we become accustomed to “well-seasoned” foods then a french fry with minimal salt or a “low sodium” product may not satisfy. Hence, the reason for the FDA guidelines for gradual sodium reduction over the next two and half years.3 The average American (including children ages 2 to 13) consumes close to 3,400 mg of sodium daily.4 Considering that one teaspoon of table salt has 2,325 mg of sodium and the recommended daily limit for sodium is 2,300 mg, we have some work to do. Sodium is core to the function of our bodies as it helps regulate the balance of fluids and the way our nerves and muscles work. The problem arises when too much sodium can’t be processed by our kidneys, contributing to fluid retention and high blood pressure — a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and kidney failure.4 The amount of sodium reduction and the direct relationship to hypertension is controversial at times but the reality is “more is not better.”
You Are in Control
As food companies and restaurants work to decrease sodium in their respective products, we can do the same in our grocery store purchases and at-home preparation. Some tips are “no brainers” while for others we need to be more mindful. Consider these recommendations:
In the Grocery Store:
- Buy fresh or frozen vegetables as they are naturally low in sodium and no salt has been added in the freezing process. When buying canned vegetables, like tomatoes, look for a low sodium option. Also rinsing canned beans, like black beans and chickpeas, before using can reduce the sodium content by 20 to 30%.
- Buy fresh meat options or frozen poultry or meat without any sodium-containing solutions.
- Don’t be deterred by “low sodium” labels, especially for soups, broths and condiments (when there’s an option). These are high sodium juggernauts and the low sodium options provide plenty of flavor. For example, one tablespoon (15 milliliters) of soy sauce has about 1,000 mg of sodium.
- Read the label. The Nutrition Facts panel lists the mg of sodium contained per serving and what percent the sodium content is of the total recommended daily value (DV). Buying foods within the 200 mg per serving or less is a good guideline to gradually reduce sodium intake. A product with 140 mg or less is considered low sodium.4 If looking at the DV, 5% or less DV is classified as “low sodium” while 20% reflects a high sodium level. For example, a canned soup product containing 400 mg or 20% DV is a high sodium source.
In the Kitchen:
- Return to the kitchen. Eating out is great and supporting local restaurants is a good idea. However, if you are wanting to monitor your sodium intake, eating at home more often is key to controlling what goes in your food.
- Reduce or eliminate salt when making soups, stews or other main dishes. This is the easiest place to start and will not alter the quality or texture of the finished products, especially if dairy products, canned tomatoes or broth are part of the ingredients. For baked products, reducing rather than eliminating is a good first step to ensure product quality.4
- Reach for the spices and herbs! Fresh or dried herbs and spices or zest and juice from citrus fruit are sodium free and can add an abundance of flavor.
- Check out cookbooks that promote healthy and flavorful eating like the Dash Diet for Two or the Hypertension Cookbook for Dummies by RD colleague Rosanne Rust.6
Eliminating sodium from our diets is not probable nor should it be. Sodium is necessary to ensure our body functions well and to preserve the functionality and safety of some foods. The problem occurs when we go beyond the limits. Like the gradual reduction guidance offered by the FDA, perhaps reducing our sodium intake begins by breaking one of those old etiquette rules of passing the salt and pepper together. For your health, just pass the pepper and hold the salt.
1. The Origins of Cooking: Paleolithic and Neolithic Cooking, by Ferran Adrià and elBullifoundation, Phaidon Press, 2021.
2. “Flavor 101: What Are the Five Basic Tastes?” by John McQuaid, Parade.com, April 15, 2021.
3. “Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Sodium Reduction Goals,” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, October 2021.
4. “Sodium: How to tame your salt habit,” by Mayo Clinic Staff, Mayo Clinic.org, September 15, 2021.
5. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee, Scribner, 2004. (Available from Amazon)
6. Dash Diet for Two: 125 Heart-Healthy Recipes to Lower Your Blood Pressure Together by Rosanne Rust, Rockridge Press, 2020. (Available from Amazon)