Salt’s often vilified in the press as the cause of high blood pressure and heart problems, but our bodies actually need some salt for survival. It helps our kidneys with fluid regulation and assists with muscle contractions. If we consumed only some salt, there wouldn’t be a problem, but that’s not the case in the United States. The USDA’s current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend we eat less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, which is about a teaspoon. On average, Americans eat anywhere from 2,500 to almost 5,000 mg—quite a bit more than “some.”
I used to think these statistics applied only to people who get liberal with salt shakers, but I was wrong. Only 11 percent of our average salt intake comes from adding salt or using salty condiments; 77 percent comes from already prepared and processed foods. And while it’s easy to point the finger at obvious culprits, such as potato chips and frozen meals, there are many more foods in your supermarket that have a surprisingly high salt content.
You might think salt’s limited to savory fare like omelets and bacon, but it lurks in sweeter morning meals, too. Raisin bran cereal seems like a healthy way to start the day, except it’s got 350 mg of salt—that’s 15 percent of the USDA’s recommended daily value (DV). Bagels are an even worse choice in terms of sodium content. Sara Lee Deluxe Blueberry Bagels have 430 mg, and her plain bagels actually have even more (560 mg, which is 23 percent of the DV). Egg bagels are the biggest offenders of the bunch, giving us 25 percent of the DV (590 mg). Pillsbury Grands! biscuits aren’t much better, with Homestyle Buttermilk coming in at 580 mg and Cinnamon Roll containing 650 mg.
Even supposedly healthier options aren’t necessarily lower in salt. Quaker Weight Control Instant Oatmeal in Maple & Brown Sugar still has 310 mg; Nature’s Path Organic Flax Plus frozen waffles have even more (380 mg).
Shocked that something as sugary as a cinnamon roll can contain so much salt? Consider these other processed desserts: Pop-Tarts boast only 210 mg of sodium per serving, but keep in mind that one serving equals one Pop-Tart. Each foil package contains two, meaning 420 mg total. Many Hostess products have higher salt contents than most people realize as well. The Crunch variety of Hostess Donettes (the little donuts) have 400 mg, and its Lemon Fruit Pie and Twinkies have the same amount, 420 mg.
Canned soups, beans, and veggies save time and effort in the kitchen but can also contribute a great deal of salt to a meal if you’re not careful. Campbell’s Light Minestrone and Amy’s Chunky Vegetable both sound nutritionally great, but they have 680 mg and 480 mg of salt, respectively. S&W Black Beans contain 480 mg of salt, and its peas have 390 mg. Del Monte Green Beans contain about the same amount of sodium as the S&W peas. There’s nothing you can do about soup, but for canned beans and veggies, always rinse them before eating, or look for lower-salt or no-salt-added options.
Condiments, Dressings, and Sauces
A tablespoon (or four) of condiments and sauces doesn’t seem like a big deal, until you consider the fact that they’re additions to what’s probably already a salty meal. Heinz ketchup has only 190 mg per serving … but how many of us eat only a tablespoon of ketchup at a time? (I definitely don’t.) Salsa’s in the same boat: two tablespoons of Pace Picante have 250 mg, but I know my serving sizes triple that number.
Sticking to a serving of Cattlemen’s Classic Barbecue Sauce still adds on 400 mg of salt. The same goes for salad dressings; Kraft Light Ranch has 440 mg! That’s almost 20 percent of your DV right there. Ken’s Steak House Buffalo Wing Sauce has 490 mg. Pasta sauces pack a punch, too: Prego Traditional has 480 mg, and Classico Alfredo Sauce has 430 mg.
Deli meat is a staple of school and office lunches throughout the country, which is why its salt content is particularly alarming. One slice of Hillshire Farm ham contains 310 mg, but most people use at least two or more on sandwiches. Gallo salame is 480 mg, or 20 percent DV, for five small slices. And one of the worst lunch meats on the market in terms of saltiness is probably one of the most popular: turkey breast. Hillshire Farm’s Mesquite Smoked variety has a whopping 690 mg—almost 30 percent of your DV.
Milk contains a natural amount of sodium, about 115 mg per serving. But some types of cheese are especially salty, such as cottage cheese. It’s touted as a healthful alternative to other cheeses, but the Knudsen variety contains 430 mg and 18 percent DV, and its low-fat version has 440 mg. DiGiorno parmesan has 430 mg, and Stella gorgonzola has 390 mg, which is 16 percent DV. Kraft 2% Milk American Cheese Singles have only 280 mg, but if you put that between a couple of slices of turkey breast, that’s one salty sandwich.
Sports drinks, like Gatorade, are made for athletes who need mineral replenishment, so it makes sense they’d contain a little sodium. However, the nonathletes who drink Gatorade should know it has 110 mg per eight-ounce serving, and there are four servings per bottle—that’s 440 mg of salt, which trumps even super-salty V8’s content (420 mg). (One store’s generic version of V8 actually has 680 mg.) Clamato’s the absolute worst, with 880 mg, or 37 percent DV, of salt in every serving.
We may need salt to live, but getting too much of it is definitely hazardous to our health. That doesn’t mean we need to cut out cottage cheese and the occasional can of soup from our diets, but it does mean we should be mindful when eating these things. If you check ingredients lists and fat and sugar content, don’t forget to glance at the sodium content, too. The numbers may shock you toward better choices, like not eating both Pop-Tarts in the sleeve or drinking a whole bottle of Gatorade—or, in my case, not consuming half a bottle of ketchup or half a jar of salsa in one sitting. Our bodies will be happier, and our taste buds … well, they’ll learn to be happier.