It’s not what many people think. The saltiest foods are not the salty-tasting peanuts and popcorn. In fact, these are often surprisingly low in sodium. You simply can’t use taste to determine the amount of sodium in food.
Salted peanuts, popcorn and chips taste salty because the salt is on the food’s surface, leading many people to believe that they are high sodium foods. They seem that way because the salt hits your taste receptors right away. But plenty of very high sodium foods don’t taste salty at all. Why? Sodium in food is often hidden by other flavors, especially sweet.
Why sodium in food matters
A high sodium intake is linked to each of the following:
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- stomach cancer
- osteoporosis, possibly
- kidney stones, possibly
Because most people with diabetes have high blood pressure or are at very high risk for it, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends limiting sodium intake to less than 2300 mg daily. If you have both diabetes and high blood pressure, the ADA suggests that you might benefit from trimming sodium back even more.
The American Heart Association also recommends limiting sodium to less than 2300 mg per day, but they identify 1500 mg as a more healthful target.
The average sodium intake, by the way, is more than 3400 mg daily.
Jill’s sodium in food pop quiz
- Which has more sodium? 1 packet of maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal or a small order of salted French fries?
- What about a 1/2-cup serving of instant chocolate pudding or 1 ounce of salted pretzels?
You’re pretty salt savvy if you guessed that the oatmeal and the pudding are the higher-sodium choices – even though they certainly don’t taste salty at all. The sweet flavor is hiding the saltiness.
Some other foods that might have more sodium than you’d guess are soy sauce and other condiments, pickles and pickled foods, taco seasonings and other flavor packets, cheese, meal kits and soup. You can’t really know unless you look at food labels.
9 simple strategies to reduce sodium intake
Surprisingly, most of the sodium we consume does not come from the saltshaker. Rather about 75% comes from packaged, processed and restaurant foods. About 12% occurs naturally in our food, and the rest is what we sprinkle on. That means that hiding the saltshaker isn’t necessarily the most important strategy. Try these:
- Don’t assume that you can taste low sodium or high sodium foods. Right? I made that point above.
- Read food labels. When looking at the Nutrition Facts panel on various products, compare servings sizes and sodium content. Brands might vary quite a bit. So might different flavors within the same line of food.
- Combine low-sodium and regular products together. I do this all the time. I might use a can of regular diced tomatoes and a can of no salt added tomato sauce. It’s a perfect way to drastically trim sodium without harming taste. This works for broth too. Try it next time that you cook rice in broth. Or mix regular broth with plain water.
- Boost flavors with seasonings and ingredients other than salt. Try citrus juice and zest, herbs, spices, and various types of vinegar. If you haven’t used much citrus in your cooking, check out this guide that the folks at Sunkist put together.
- Drain and rinse canned beans and vegetables. You’ll wash away about 40% of the sodium.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. They are naturally low in sodium and rich in other nutrients that boost health and protect against high blood pressure.
- Ask for nutrition info in restaurants. Many chain restaurants will identify wholesome, lower-sodium options.
- Ask for what you want. Request that the chef avoid added salt.
- Check out Healthy Dining Finder. This site identifies both local and chain restaurants that meet strict nutritional criteria.
Here are the numbers from my pop quiz.
- Maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal: 218 mg per packet prepared with milk
- Fast food French fries: 134 mg per small order
- Instant chocolate pudding: 403 mg per 1/2 cup
- Salted pretzels: 260 mg/ounce
Cheers to happy, healthy eating!