Sodium 101

How Much Do You Need, and How Much is Too Much?

Sodium is a mineral vital to many of our body processes. However, 90% of Americans over the age of 2 consume too much sodium, which can have a negative effect on our overall health. While the Food and Drug Administration is working with food manufacturers to reduce overall sodium levels in our food supply, every American can make better, more informed decisions to reduce their overall sodium intake and optimize health.

Salt v. Sodium

Contrary to popular belief, “salt” and “sodium” are not the same thing. “Salt” is the white, crystal-like compound sodium chloride, harvested from mines or from the evaporation of ocean water, that ends up in the salt shakers in our kitchen. By composition, table salt is about 40% sodium and 60% chloride. “Sodium,” however, is a dietary mineral found in food, and can be either naturally occurring or added to processed foods during the manufacturing process.

Why is Sodium Necessary?

Sodium is an electrolyte that helps the body maintain a healthy amount of fluid volume, both inside and outside our cells. It keeps cells and organs functioning properly, regulates blood pressure, and supports nerve transmission and muscle contraction and relaxation. But too much sodium can cause inefficiency in these body processes and can increase the risk of chronic disease.

Are “Natural” Salts Healthier?

All types of salt are composed of sodium and chloride, though some are less processed than others and the mineral content of certain types of salt may vary. Table salt is extracted from underground deposits and is heavily processed, which removes any trace minerals. It may contain iodine, which is added later. Kosher salt is coarser than table salt and does not contain iodine. Sea salt, produced from the evaporation of ocean water, may contain trace amounts of potassium, zinc and iron. Himilayan pink salt, harvested from mines in Pakistan, contains small amounts of iron oxide, which give it its pink color, along with potassium, calcium and magnesium. But, in order to take advantage of the trace minerals in salts like the Himilayan pink variety, you’d have to consume so much that it would unsafely elevate your body’s sodium levels.

Health Risks of Too Much Sodium

The body extracts sodium from the foods we eat. If you consume too much, the body will signal the kidneys to get rid of it, and you will eliminate the excess as perspiration and urine. However, many Americans consume such an excess of sodium that the kidneys have trouble keeping up with its removal from the blood. As sodium levels increase, the body holds water to dilute the sodium, increasing the amount of fluid surrounding cells and the volume of blood in the body. This can lead to symptoms that are merely annoying, like puffiness, bloating and weight gain, but over time, chronically high levels of sodium can also be life-threatening. Increased blood volume means the heart has to work harder and there is more pressure on the blood vessels. That extra work can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure and stroke.

How Much is Too Much?

The body needs about 500 milligrams of sodium per day to perform vital functions, but the Food and Drug Administration estimates the average American consumes more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium – about 1.5 teaspoons - per day, which is considerably more than the body can efficiently eliminate. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that healthy adults take in no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, but the American Heart Association recommends we keep it to 1,500 milligrams for optimal health. For children under the age of 14, recommended intake is even lower.

Sodium Hiding in Processed Foods

Most of us don’t need to try to hit that 500 milligram total for sodium consumption, because sodium does a great job of finding us on its own. While most unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and lean meats are naturally low in sodium, there are a few natural foods – like celery, beets, milk and shellfish – that have slightly higher levels of sodium. However, the vast majority of the sodium we consume – about 75% - comes from processed and packaged foods, and not from natural foods or even from the salt we add during cooking or at the dinner table. Sodium is added to processed foods, often in excessive amounts, as a thickener and flavor-enhancer, and as a preservative, because bacteria cannot grow in a high-sodium environment. Foods that are exceptionally high in sodium include deli and other processed meats, frozen dinners, canned vegetables and soups and salad dressings. Restaurant and fast foods are also typically very high in sodium. For example, a McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese contains 1140 milligrams of sodium.

How to Reduce Your Sodium Intake

Watch Out for Sweets: Foods that are high in sodium don’t always taste salty, so be aware that many sweet treats like cereals and pastries can pack a big sodium punch.

Read Labels: Before you purchase a packaged food product, check the Nutrition Facts label to compare the sodium content of similar products. For example, sodium content in bread can vary widely, from 300 milligrams to 700 milligrams per 100 grams of bread.

Do the Math: The Nutrition Facts label will also list “% Daily Value.” Add up the sodium you consume in one day and try to keep it under 100% of the Daily Value.

Cut Out Processed Foods: Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. Think chicken breast and a baked potato instead of chicken nuggets and French fries. Focus on whole foods that have not been manufactured and have not had any ingredients added to them.

Give it a Rinse: Running canned beans, tuna and vegetables under fresh water before consuming them can remove some of the sodium added in the canning process.

Spice it Up: Expand your culinary horizons by adding flavor to your food with no-salt seasoning blends and other herbs and spices, like basil, oregano, chili powder, paprika, dill, garlic, parsley, rosemary and thyme.