Getting Savvy About Sodium in Foods

Trying to navigate your way through the minefield of high-sodium foods out there? Have you been looking for ways to reduce your sodium intake and improve your all-around health? We explain how to read food labels, make smarter choices when it comes to feeding your family, and help you become more sodium-savvy.

According to Statistics Canada the average Canadian consumes over 3,000 mg of sodium a day – more than twice the Adequate Intake for adults of 1,200 to 1,500 mg per day. This excess sodium raises blood pressure and increases the risk of stroke and heart disease. Research shows that cutting consumption from current levels to the Adequate Intake would reduce hypertension in Canada by 30%. People who successfully reduced their long term sodium intake decreased their chances of developing heart disease and stroke by 25% over the following 10 – 15 years.

While salt (sodium chloride) is the principal source of dietary sodium, many people do not realize that it is the “hidden” salt in processed foods that accounts for over 75% of our sodium intake. This has prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to call on multinational food companies to lower the sodium content of their products to the lowest possible level. In a 2007 report, WHO also called for legislation if the food industry does not respond.

Unprocessed foods typically contain very little sodium. A raw tomato contains 5 mg of sodium, an egg 50 mg, a single serving of ground beef 45 mg, and orange just 1 mg. In contrast, processed foods such as canned and packaged foods, ready-prepared meals, pizzas and sandwiches, and take-out food can contain staggering amounts of sodium.

A quick lunch? Warm up a cup of Knorr Spring Pea ready-to-serve soup – 970 mg sodium; grab a Ham and Swiss sandwich at Tim Horton’s – 1,690 mg of sodium; or how about a couple of slices of a small Pizza Pizza Meat Supreme – 1,720 mg of

sodium. Dinner at Swiss Chalet? I’ll have the Sundried Garlic Cheese Loaf to start – 1,590 mg sodium. Then the Vegetable Stir Fry with Grilled Chicken Breast on a bed of Rice Pilaf – 3,230 mg sodium, and a slice of Carrot Cake for dessert – 260 mg sodium. The dinner total 5,080 mg sodium, more than 3 days worth in a single meal! Did you want sodium with that?

So how much sodium is too much? Remember that the Adequate Daily Total Intake for persons aged 9-50 is 1,500 mg decreasing to 1,200 mg for those 70 and over. Canada’s Food Guide advises adults to consume a total of around 20 servings of food per day, so a healthy amount of sodium per Food Guide Serving is approximately 100 mg. Processed foods that contain over 400 mg (over 30% of an Adequate Daily Intake) in a single serving are high salt foods and should be avoided.

Given the importance of diet in determining your health, it is a scandal that nutritional and serving size information is not usually available for take-out and restaurant food, but when shopping in the supermarket you can use the Nutritional Facts information on the food labels to choose healthier options.

When checking sodium levels the savvy shopper focuses firstly on the number of mg listed for sodium in the Nutritional Facts table. This is the amount of sodium per unit of food or serving size: less than 200 mg is good (green light); 200 – 400 mg is medium (amber light); and over 400 mg is high (red light). Note that the % Daily Value listed for sodium should be ignored since, unfortunately, it is not based on a healthy target daily sodium intake and gives a misleading underestimate of the sodium content!

The second important piece of information is the unit of food or serving size. This tells us how much food the Nutritional Facts table is referring to—for example per 1/2 cup (125 ml), or per 50 g, or per whole tortilla, etc. Packets and cans typically contain multiple servings or units, so you will have to multiply the sodium number by the number of units or servings you plan to consume in order to get the sodium total.

To aid in planning a low sodium and healthy diet follow Canada’s Food Guide, but be aware that Food Guide servings are often smaller than the serving sizes or units of food referenced in the Nutritional Facts table. For example, one Food Guide serving of whole wheat tortilla is 1/2 a piece, 35g. However, Canada’s food labeling regulations allow a tortilla of up to 100 g, or almost 3 Food Guide servings, to be considered a “serving” or unit of food for the purposes of constructing the Nutritional Facts table.

While other countries—most notably the U.K.—are taking the aggressive action required on dietary sodium, Canada is moving slowly. Clearly reforms are urgently needed to:

  • pressure the food industry to reduce the sodium content of their products, with legislation to follow if voluntary efforts are ineffective;
  • make nutritional information readily available to consumers of take-out and restaurant food; and
  • revise the nutritional labeling so consumers can easily determine if food products contain high, medium or low amounts of sodium.

Don’t wait for these reforms; you can take action now to lower your risk of stroke and heart disease by reducing your sodium intake! Here are some easy steps:

  • read the food labels and always choose lower sodium options;
  • avoid high sodium foods that contain over 400 mg sodium per serving;
  • add progressively less salt when cooking and at the table – as you get used to the taste cut it out completely;
  • try to eat less processed “convenience” foods and watch out for the salty foods such as soups, bacon, pepperoni and cheese when eating out; and
  • eat more unprocessed fruit and vegetables as these are good for your health and naturally low in sodium.