If you think you can shake sodium from your diet just by tossing out the salt shaker, think again! A whopping 77 per cent of sodium is hidden in prepared foods. Most dietary sodium comes from packaged or processed foods and restaurant meals. Check out Table 1 to see the effect processing has on the sodium content of food. Only 12 per cent of daily sodium intake comes from salt we add to food at the table or while cooking. 11 per cent occurs naturally in fresh foods.
If hypertension is called a ‘silent killer,’ then sodium could be called a ‘quiet food additive.’ Salt and other sodium additives have long been common ingredients in foods we buy.
However, they have not received the same attention as other food ingredients. Most of us are now aware of the dangers of trans fat. Manufacturers are modifying recipes to get rid of this unhealthy ingredient. However, sodium is thought to pose an even greater risk to health. Excess amounts raise blood pressure and the risk for cardiovascular disease such as heart attack and stroke. Sodium is also associated with an increased risk for osteoporosis, kidney stones and gastric (stomach) cancer. It is time we pay attention to this quiet but risky food additive.
Although sodium is essential to our health, a little goes a long way. An intake of 1500 milligrams a day is plenty for adults. Children and seniors need even less. Guess how much sodium the average Canadian adult eats in a day? A recent survey reports 3500 milligrams - more than double what we need. This is partially due to the high dose of sodium in our food supply.
Foods sold in Canada are some of the saltiest in the world. Some popular breakfast cereals sold here have as much as 85 per cent more sodium per serving than the same cereals sold elsewhere. Comparing sodium content of identical franchise restaurant foods in 22 countries around the world, Canada ranks in the top four for the amount in items such as burgers and chicken nuggets. Table 3 lists common restaurant meals and the sodium they contain.
In October 2007, over a dozen national health organizations supported a sodium policy developed by Blood Pressure Canada. The policy recommends that our government help Canadians reduce sodium intake to less than 2300 milligrams per day by the year 2020. Health Canada is heading up a multi-stakeholder task force to help achieve this goal. You too can take action to cut sodium from your diet.
Read labels. Look for the milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving in packaged foods. This information is listed in the Nutrition Facts panel. Choose foods with the fewest milligrams of sodium per serving. By looking at the % Daily Value for sodium, which is set at 2400 milligrams, you can tell whether a food contains a little or a lot of sodium. Choose foods with a lower % Daily Value for sodium.
Pay attention to portion size. This is the most important place to begin when reading a Nutrition Facts panel. You can easily underestimate your intake of sodium if you consume more than the serving size indicated. If you double the serving size, you must double the sodium number too.
To search for the sodium content of specific foods or food categories, visit Health Canada’s Nutrient File website:
Limit the amount of salt used in cooking and at the table. This rule also applies to sea salt and any seasonings containing sodium including garlic salt, celery salt and seasoning salt. Flavour foods with herbs, spices, no-salt seasonings, lemon juice and flavoured vinegars.
Buy fresh, less processed foods such as fresh or frozen vegetables, fresh meat, poultry, fish and shellfish, eggs, unsalted nuts, dried legumes and vegetable oils.
Food products are beginning to reflect consumer demand for low-sodium foods. Some manufacturers now make foods with lower sodium content. Look for terms such as ‘low sodium’ or ‘no added salt.’ Many reduced-sodium versions contain 25 per cent less sodium than the original, others even less. If you want to buy a particular low-sodium product, ask your grocer to stock it.
Prepare more meals at home using fresh ingredients. Look for quick and easy recipes. Use fresh convenience foods such as frozen vegetables, shredded cheese, salad in a bag, or skinless boneless chicken breasts. These can help you save time in the kitchen. Plan meals ahead of time and have the ingredients you need on hand. See Table 2 for examples of how to modify meals to reduce sodium content.
Our refrigerators are overflowing with high-salt flavour enhancers or condiments. Sodium-loaded culprits include ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, relish, chutney, salsa, dips, salad dressings, and teriyaki and barbeque sauces, to name a few.
Eat pickles, pickled foods, sauerkraut and olives less often. To add more flavour to snacks and meals, enjoy a variety of raw vegetables as a side order or topping.
Limit salted snack foods such as chips, cheezies, pretzels, crackers, popcorn, seeds and nuts. Look for unsalted varieties.
Fast food outlets and restaurants offer low sugar and low fat choices, but most are still high in sodium. Ask that your order to be prepared without salt, with sauces and dressings served on the side. Request nutrition information on menu items and choose those with the lowest sodium. To find the sodium content of menu items, search the nutrition information section of your favourite restaurant’s website.