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The Dr. Gourmet Diet Plan
What do the sodium (salt) numbers mean on food labels?



a women using a salt shaker to salt her pizza

In 1990 the government passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The rules prior to that were pretty basic, and the only information required was a listing of the ingredients in the package. You had to be a bit of a detective and know a lot about food to be able to understand what you might be eating. The ingredients were listed in order, by weight, from the largest amount to the smallest amount. That meant that consumers were pretty much on our own, and had to guess how much of something might or might not be in any particular food.

For example, if the first three ingredients were tuna, water and salt, you knew only that there was more tuna and water than salt but no idea how much salt there was. Fortunately, it's a bit easier now, but reading a food label can be a bit of a challenge because one is faced with more than one number.

For sodium, the Nutrition Facts label is required to list the number of milligrams of sodium per serving. For instance, in the Cheeseburger Macaroni Hamburger Helper the sodium per serving is listed as 760 milligrams (mg). To make it a bit easier the regulations also require that the percent of daily recommendations (RDA) is listed as well. In the case of the Hamburger Helper, the single serving is 32% of the RDA for a day. (The percentages listed on packages are based on a RDA of 2,400 mg per day.)

2,400 mg is a much lower sodium intake than most of us are eating, with the average American consuming between 4,000 mg and 6,000 mg per day. Some estimates place that much higher - in the 10,000 mg per day range for western diets (that's ten GRAMS of sodium - close to 5 teaspoons of salt).

As with my previous article on reading food labels, the serving size is critical. Most companies that manufacture food such as Hamburger Helper underestimate the portion size dramatically. In truth, a box of Hamburger Helper is only two servings of about 2 to 2 1/2 cups, since no one actually eats only 1 cup for dinner. That means that you have to at least double both the number of milligrams of sodium and the percentage of RDA.

The percentage values of sodium are helpful, but it is best to use them only as a guideline. The key numbers are those that show the amount of sodium in milligrams.

We have much better research on this now and it turns out that the guideline of 2,400 mg is a good target. For those simply trying to eat healthier the American Heart Association recommends 2,300 mg per day (this is about the amount in a teaspoon of salt). Most physicians have their patients with conditions such as Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) and hypertension eat less, however, with a target of 1,500 mg.

I have found with informal testing of recipes that keeping the sodium levels above 300 mg for a main course dish is about the level that most people find "salty enough."

The best way to approach this is to divide your day into meals with targets at breakfast and lunch under 500 mg sodium and dinner under 1,000 mg total. Look at the Nutrition Facts on any package of food and add the total milligrams of sodium for the foods that you are eating and add up how much sodium is in each meal for the day.

It is better to simply avoid foods like Hamburger Helper and other prepared, boxed, highly processed foods. By choosing recipes from Dr. Gourmet and other sources that have the Nutrition Facts listed, have reasonable portion sizes and are delicious it means you will be cooking for yourself and, in the end, that is the best way to control your sodium intake.

Updated July 13, 2015