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Where does the salt in my diet come from?

Many foods naturally contain sodium, including animal products like meat, fish, poultry, milk and eggs. Vegetable products are naturally low in sodium. Most of the sodium in our diets, however, comes from commercially processed foods such as cured meats like bacon and ham, luncheon meats, sausage, frozen breaded meats, fish and seafood, and canned meats. Condiments like catsup, mustard and steak sauce are also high in sodium. Fast foods such as hamburger, French fries and prepare-at-home fast foods like frozen pizza, hot dogs, sausage, creamed chipped beef and broccoli with cheese sauce are very high in sodium.

Start reading the ingredients list on the label of the package to determine the sodium content, and make it a point to stay within recommended limits. Words that have soda, sodium or "NA" associated with them indicate sodium as a part of a preservative or flavoring agent. Some examples are monosodium glutamate, baking soda, sodium nitrate, sodium propionate and sodium benzoate.

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Most of the sodium, or salt, we eat comes from processed foods and foods prepared in restaurants. Sodium is already part of processed foods and cannot be removed. However, manufacturers and restaurants can produce foods with less sodium. In addition, you can select lower-sodium foods when possible, and you can cook more foods yourself to better control how much sodium you eat.

  • Types of foods matter: More than 40 percent of sodium comes from the following 10 types of foods: Breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats such as deli or packaged ham or turkey, pizza, fresh and processed poultry, soups, sandwiches such as cheeseburgers, cheese, pasta dishes, meat-mixed dishes such as meat loaf with tomato sauce, and snacks such as chips, pretzels and popcorn.
  • Sources of foods matter: About 65 percent of sodium eaten comes from food bought at retail stores, so look for lower sodium choices. About 25 percent comes from restaurants, and it can be hard for a person to tell how much sodium is in restaurant foods.
  • Brands of foods matter: Different brands of the same foods may have different sodium levels. For example, sodium in chicken noodle soup can vary by as much as 840 milligrams per serving.
Toby Smithson
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Many people think they consume a low salt diet by simply avoiding the salt shaker. While avoiding salting your food or using high sodium seasonings will lower your sodium intake, more than 75 percent of the sodium we eat comes from processed and restaurant foods. The high sodium foods are canned foods (soups, meats, fish, and vegetables); cured or smoked meats; frozen meals; and snack chips and crackers. Check the label of the foods you purchase because the sodium adds up quickly. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend 2300 milligrams of sodium/day for the general population and 1500 milligrams sodium/day for people aged 51 and older, all African Americans, people who have kidney disease or high blood pressure, or diabetes.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.