Hidden Salt: How Everyday Foods Harm You

It’s in your bread. Your cheese. Your soup. It’s everywhere, and it could be killing you. What is it? Salt.

the American Academy of Family Physicians is spreading the word and offering resources to help consumers lower their daily intake of “hidden” salt in the foods they eat. Why? Because too much salt in the diet raises blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke — two of the leading causes of death in the United States.

Many Americans think they only get too much salt when they use it at the dining room table. In reality, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that Americans get 77 percent of their salt from processed foods and restaurant meals, compared to 6 percent from the salt shaker at the table and 5 percent added during home cooking. As a result, Americans ages 2 and up consume an average 3,400 milligrams of salt each day — well above the recommended Federal Drug Administration’s guideline of 2,300 milligrams per day, or 1,500 milligrams per day for people diagnosed with or at risk for high blood pressure.

“Salt is hiding everywhere, so it doesn’t take much to reach the FDA’s recommended daily allowance,” said John Meigs, Jr., MD, president of the AAFP. “There are 2,300 milligrams of sodium — the chemical name for salt — in a single teaspoon of table salt. It’s a real challenge to reduce salt intake, even for people who are highly motivated to do so.”

Where is all of this “hidden” salt? According to the CDC, a significant amount of the salt we eat comes from the following 10 types of foods:

Breads and rolls
Cold cuts and cured meat (e.g., deli or packaged ham or turkey)
Fresh and processed poultry
Sandwiches such as cheeseburgers
Pasta dishes (not including macaroni and cheese)
Meat-mixed dishes such as meat loaf and tomato sauce
Snacks such as chips, pretzels and popcorn

In an effort to reduce the national level of heart disease and stroke from high blood pressure, the FDA has called on restaurants and food companies to voluntarily reduce the amount of salt used in their products over the next 10 years, with the goal of decreasing Americans’ salt intake to 2,300 milligrams a day or less. The AAFP supports voluntary goals for reducing salt in commercial products, which has proven effective in other countries.

The CDC estimates nearly 400,000 Americans die each year due to health problems stemming from high blood pressure. Unfortunately, implementation of the voluntary guidelines will be slow to gain traction. So, what can individuals do in the meantime to reduce the amount of salt they consume? Start by reading nutrition labels, which indicate how much sodium is in the product. One can also regulate salt consumption by preparing healthy food at home. Non-processed fresh foods that are high in fiber are ideal. Think fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meat and whole grains.

While it would be difficult to entirely eliminate processed foods from one’s diet, it is possible to make smarter choices, Meigs said. Different brands of the same foods often contain varying levels of salt. For example, a slice of white bread can range anywhere from 80 to 230 milligrams of salt. Salt levels in a can of chicken noodle soup can range from 100 to 900 milligrams per serving.

When dining out at restaurants, it is often difficult to know how much salt is in your meal. If nutrition information isn’t included on the menu, you may need to do some homework in advance by visiting the restaurant’s website, Meigs advised. You may be surprised to find that items billed as “light or healthy fare” are often high in salt.

“Even meals that seem healthy, like a turkey sandwich with a side of cottage cheese, can have high levels of salt. It may not even taste salty. That’s why it’s important to read nutrition labels and talk with your family physician about your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, family health history, and ways to prevent health problems before they start,” Meigs said. “What you eat should be a very important part of that conversation.”