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Mushrooms vs. Meat 09/20/17
Good news for GERD sufferers 09/14/17
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Low-carb beats low-cal (except when it isn't) 08/30/17
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Assessing the Salt Content of Processed Foods



About a month ago I had to update our page on Low Sodium Diets (Bite, 03/03/10). Turns out the estimates of how much salt people in the United States were consuming, on average, had gone up: to over 10 GRAMS of salt per day for men and 7.4 grams per day for women. If everyone reduced their salt intake to the recommended maximum of 2.4 grams per day, we could avoid as many as 92,000 deaths every year.

Most of the salt in our diets comes from the processed food we eat. Several countries, including Finland, the United Kingdom and Australia, have instituted government and food-industry-led strategies to reduce the amount of sodium in processed foods, with some success: the UK has managed to reduce their overall average salt intake by about 10% (from 9.5 to 8.6 grams per day). Recently a team in Australia assessed the amount of salt in over 7,000 processed foods sold in Australia as part of their effort to gather information on the current status of their food industry (Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(2):413-20).

The foods that were assessed came from 10 food groups, 33 food categories and 90 food subcategories, ranging from canned fruits to processed meats to sauces and spreads. A specific food was included in their list only one time: multiple instances of the same food, because of different packaging or serving sizes, were excluded. The researchers then recorded the brand and product name, the serving size, the amount of sodium per serving and the amount of sodium per 100 grams (or 100 milliliters, when the food was a liquid).

The outcome of their research shows not only the average amount of sodium in different foods across the various brands, but also shows the range of sodium amounts in each food. Let's take bacon as an example. There are 47 different products within the "Bacon" category, representing 92% of the market share for that product. While the average amount of sodium in 100 grams of bacon (about 3.5 ounces) is about 1,243 milligrams, the variation in the amount of sodium across bacon brands is enormous, ranging from 920 milligrams to 1,950 milligrams.

For most categories, the researchers discovered that the sodium level for those products with the highest amounts of sodium were at least 50% higher than the sodium levels for the comparable products with the least amount of sodium. The foods with the highest average salt content were sauces and spreads, while the foods with the lowest average salt content were canned fruits. The food with the highest average salt content (6,100 milligrams per 100 milliliter) was stocks or broths, which should explain why so many of my recipes specify low sodium or no salt added chicken, beef or vegetable broths.

What this means for you

The researchers' intentions in collecting this data is to help guide a national salt-reduction program. Such overarching initiatives haven't taken root here in the United States as of yet. Your take-home message here should be that there can be wide variations in salt content in many of the foods you eat. Compare packages and choose the brand with the lowest amount of sodium.

First posted: April 7, 2010