Salt is quickly becoming the new trans fat, the latest nutrition villain.  And the odds are more than 50-50 that you’re on the list of people who need to watch their salt.  The government’s 2011 update of the Dietary Guidelines continued to recommend 2,300 mg of sodium per day for adults, but there was a huge asterisk: The level for African Americans, people with hypertension and anyone over the age of 51 dropped to 1,500 mg.  That’s basically half the population.  Yet, the average American consumption is 3,400 mg.

Why cut salt?  Too much sodium can elevate blood pressure, which causes damage throughout the circulatory system, potentially leading to stroke or heart disease.  Diets low in sodium and rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains help lower blood pressure and keep tickers ticking.

How much do we need? It varies by individual, but scientists estimate we need only 250 to 500 mg per day for physiological functions like muscle contractions and nerve transmissions.

Is it easy to estimate how much sodium you consume? No. In a guess-your-consumption visual test with 45 people, most guessed they were allowed about ½ teaspoon but believed they were eating 2 ½ teaspoons.  Point: You need to learn the numbers, and read the labels.

Where does sodium lurk? Processed and restaurant foods deliver 77% in the average American diet.  Only 10-11% is added at the table.  The rest is added by cooks or occurs naturally in foods.

How to Read Salt Labels

When food companies make sodium claims, they have to follow labeling rules.  For the consumer, the tricky part is that there are four claims.  Two apply when a company is comparing their food to a loosely defined fully salted version.  One refers to a specific sodium level, another to whether salt has been added.  Bottom line: The amount of sodium per serving (found on the back label) is critical.

Claim #1. “No Salt Added” or “Unsalted”:   No salt is added during processing.  This does not always mean sodium-free; some foods naturally contain sodium.

For example:  Land O’ Lakes Unsalted Butter (0 mg) vs. Land O’Lakes Salted Butter (95 mg)

Sodium Savings: 95 mg per 1 tablespoon


Claim #2. “Reduced” or “Less Sodium”:  Must contain at least 25% less than the original food, a competitor’s product, or another reference.

For example:  Kikkoman Less Sodium Soy Sauce (575 mg) vs. Kikkoman Soy Sauce (920 mg)

Sodium Savings: 345 mg per 1 tablespoon


Claim #3. “Light in Sodium” or “Lightly Salted”:  Must contain 50% less than the original food, a competitor’s product, or another reference.

For example:   Lay’s Lightly Salted Potato Chips (85 mg) vs. Lay’s Classic Potato Chips (180 mg)

Sodium Savings: 95 mg per 1 ounce


Claim #4. “Low Sodium”:  This is the most stringent reduced-sodium label.  Each food can only have 140 mg or less sodium (natural or added) per serving.

For example:  Nabisco Wheat Thins Hint of Salt (60 mg) vs. Nabisco Original Wheat Thins (230 mg)

Sodium Savings: 170 mg per 6 crackers

Source: Sidney Fry, MS, RD