Why We Need It
Sodium is a mineral that the body needs in small amounts. It is found in foods mostly as sodium chloride, which is another name for table salt. One teaspoon of salt contains approximately 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium.
Small amounts of sodium are needed to maintain the right balance of body fluids. It also helps transmit nerve impulses, helps regulate blood pressure, and influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles, including the heart.
Sodium & High Blood Pressure
About one in four Americans has high blood pressure, which increases their risk of having a heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. Many people eat more sodium (salt) than necessary, and cutting back can reduce high blood pressure (hypertension).
It is not known who will develop high blood pressure. A high salt intake can increase the chance of having high blood pressure. Additional risk factors include having other family members with high blood pressure, being overweight and advancing in age.
The body needs only a small amount of sodium. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating only one teaspoon of salt per day. This is approximately 2,300 mg of sodium. Most Americans consume almost double that amount, or an average of 4,000 mg of sodium a day.
The following groups of people should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day: African Americans, people over fifty years of age, and people with chronic diseases (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease).
Recommended Daily Intakes of Sodium
|birth to 6 months||120|
|6 to 12 months||370|
|1 to 3 years||1,000|
|4 to 8 years||1,200|
|9 to 50 years||1,500|
|51 to 70 years||1,300|
|over 70 years||1,200|
|mg = milligrams
Source: adapted from the Dietary Reference Intakes series, National Academies Press. Copyright 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, by the National Academies of Sciences.
Sodium occurs naturally in many foods and is also added in processing. Many restaurant foods are very high in sodium. Most of the sodium added to foods comes from salt. In fact, about one-third of the sodium in our diets is from salt we use in cooking or add at the table.
Sodium also is found in other ingredients and food additives, so eat these foods less often: processed cheeses; salted, smoked, or cured meats; pickled or canned fish; canned soups and meats; pickles, sauerkraut, and relishes; salty snacks and crackers; and condiments (e.g. catsup, mustard, steak sauce, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, chile sauce, gravies, marinades, and salad dressings). Check their nutrition labels.
Ways to Reduce Sodium
It is important to keep the amount of sodium in your diet at a healthy level. This level is affected by the foods you choose and the ways you prepare and serve them.
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that you choose and prepare foods with little salt. At the same time, you should eat potassium-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
To cut back on sodium, choose low sodium foods more often. If you eat a high sodium food, balance it with low sodium foods. Use the salt shaker less often, and never salt food before tasting it.
Eliminate or reduce these foods in your diet:
- cured or processed meats (e.g. ham, bacon, sausage, frankfurters, luncheon meats)
- canned vegetables or frozen veggies with sauce
- commercially prepared meals (e.g. TV dinners, package mixes), main dishes, or canned or dried soups
- cheese or foods with lots of cheese (e.g. pizza, macaroni and cheese)
- salted nuts, popcorn, pretzels, corn chips, potato chips
- seasoning mixes, salad dressings, or condiments (e.g. soy sauce, steak sauce, catsup, and mustard)
Read the Label
Food labels can help you keep your sodium intake to one teaspoon per day. Most packaged foods must have nutrition and ingredient information on the label. The amount of sodium per serving must be included on the nutrition portion of the label
Nutrition information is given in a table called Nutrition Facts, which gives the amount of sodium in milligrams per serving and as a percent of the Daily Value. This information allows you to compare the amount of sodium in different brands of the same food.
In this Nutrition Facts label, one serving of the food, or ½ cup, contains 300 mg of sodium. This is 13% of the Daily Value for sodium.
Food Label Claims
If a food label says a food is “sodium free” or “low sodium,” what does this mean? The table below shows nutrition claims allowed on food labels.
Nutrient Claims About Sodium on Food Labels
|Label||Sodium per Serving|
|Sodium free||5 mg or less|
|Very low sodium||35 mg or less|
|Low sodium||140 mg or less|
|Reduced or less sodium||Sodium reduced by 25%
|Light in sodium||50% less sodium than the
|No salt added, unsalted||No salt added during
processing; but product may
still contain sodium naturally
|*restricted to foods with more than 40 calories per serving or more than 3 grams of fat per serving|
Cooking With Less Sodium
Salt provides flavor and helps preserve food. However, Americans eat much more than is needed. Here are some ways to cut back on sodium:
- Use more fresh foods and less canned foods. Processed foods tend to be higher in sodium than fresh foods.
- Try some packaged foods labeled “low sodium,” “very low sodium,” “reduced sodium,” or “less sodium.”
- Try new low sodium recipes.
- Some recipes don’t really need any salt!
- Gradually cut down on the salt in your favorite recipes. Use less salt every time you make the recipe.
- Reduce salt used in cooking pasta, rice, noodles and hot cereal. Try cutting the salt in half at first. Then see if you can use no salt at all in these foods.
- Use spices and herbs, lemon juice, or lime juice instead of salt. For specific examples, refer to Low-Sodium Seasonings.
Low-Sodium Seasonings: To keep your food tasty, cut down on added salt slowly and cook with herbs and spices. Even if you are a salt lover, you will soon lose the desire for salty foods.
|For These Foods:||Season With:|
|pot roast or meatloaf||allspice, garlic,
|fish||chives, dill, tarragon|
|soups||curry powder, ginger|
|pastas||poppy seeds, savory|
|tomatoes or tomato sauces||basil, oregano|
|rice or bulgur||basil, curry powder,
|cooked cabbage, broccoli,
|caraway seeds, curry
|cooked carrots or beets||caraway seeds, cloves|
|cooked green beans, lima
beans or peas
Special Herb & Spice Combinations: Start with equal amounts of each herb or spice (except hot pepper!) and adjust to suit your taste.
Barbecue Blend: cumin, garlic, hot pepper, oregano
Italian Blend: basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme
Egg Herbs: basil, dill weed (leaves), garlic, parsley, fines herbes (mixture of chopped herbs)
Salad Herbs: basil, parsley, tarragon
For More Information
For related information on sodium in your diet, refer to HGIC 4054, Halt Salt! The Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) agent at your county Extension office may have more written information and nutrition classes for you to attend. Also, your doctor, health care provider, or a registered dietitian (RD) can provide reliable information.
Reliable nutrition information may be found on the Internet at the following sites: