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Sodium

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 three Americans has high blood pressure, which increases their risk of having a heart attack, stroke, chronic 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, physical inactivity, unhealthy eating habits, and advancing in age.

Amounts Needed

The body needs only a small amount of sodium. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating only one teaspoon of salt per day. This is approximately 2,300 mg of sodium. Most Americans consume an average of more than 3,400 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

Age Sodium (mg/day)
birth to 6 months 110
7 to 12 months 370
1 to 3 years 800
4 to 8 years 1000
9 to 13 years old 1200
14-18 years old 1500
19 to over 70 years old 1,500
pregnancy 1,500
breastfeeding 1,500
mg = milligrams
Source: adapted from the Dietary Reference Intakes series, National Academies Press. Copyright 2019 by the National Academy of Sciences

Sources

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 2015-2020 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.

Nutrition food label

Nutrition food label

In this updated Nutrition Facts label, one serving of the food or 2/3 cup contains 160mg of sodium. This is 7% of the Daily Value for sodium. Note that packages often contain more than one serving of a food item. If you plan to eat two servings of a food, you will get twice the sodium listed on the label.

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
Salt/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%
or more
Light in sodium/lightly salted 50% less sodium than the
traditional food*
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.

Low-Sodium Seasonings

For These Foods: Season With:
pot roast or meatloaf allspice, garlic,
marjoram, thyme
fish chives, dill, tarragon
poultry marjoram, rosemary,
tarragon, garlic powder
soups curry powder, ginger
pastas poppy seeds, savory,basil
tomatoes or tomato sauces basil, oregano
rice or bulgur basil, curry powder,
onion powder
cooked cabbage, broccoli,
Brussels sprouts,
or cauliflower
caraway seeds, curry
powder, marjoram
cooked carrots or beets caraway seeds, cloves
cooked green beans, lima
beans or peas
dill, rosemary

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 Health Extension 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:
http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/
http://www.eatright.org
http://www.nutrition.gov
http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic
https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition

Sources:

  1. Bobroff, Linda B. University of Florida Extension. Nutrition for Health and Fitness: Sodium in Your Diet. October 2002, October 2010, August 2012, and January 2018. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publications.html
  2. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Use the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Sodium Intake.” S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/use-nutrition-facts-label-reduce-your-intake-sodium-your-diet.
  3. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 8th Edition.” 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
  4. Sciences, National Academies of, et al. “Sodium: Dietary Reference Intakes for Adequacy.” Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 5 Mar. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545436/.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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