Your body needs sodium to function. It helps you maintain a balance of fluids, transmit nerve impulses and facilitate the contraction and relaxation of your muscles. Indeed, a recent piece in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explained how the human body has developed numerous "failsafe mechanisms" to ensure sufficient sodium availability. At the most basic, biological level, our body wants and needs it.
But too much of just about anything isn't good, and the same holds true for salt. An excess of sodium chloride in your body overwhelms the kidneys, which aren't able to excrete it properly causing it to accumulate in your blood. That, in turn, can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure, the potential consequences of which are life-threatening, including heart attack and stroke. The issue is so important that WASH, the World Action on Salt Health, has dubbed March 21 through 27 World Salt Awareness Week. The hope is to spread awareness about the potential dangers of too much salt to help combat cardiovascular disease.
The United States Government recommends that most adults intake less than 2,300 mg of salt per day, though it recently added the caveat that adults over the age of 51, in addition who is African American or has hypertension, diabetes and chronic kidney disease (aka, about half of the American public), should limit their intake to 1,500 mg per day. But the CDC estimates that the average sodium intake per person in the U.S. is more than 3,400 mg per day. And it says that most of that comes from processed and restaurant foods.
"That's the issue," said Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale's Prevention Research Center and a HuffPo contributor. "It's really, really hard for the consumer to address the issue of sodium intake themselves, because 80 percent of it comes from packaged foods -- not from the salt shaker."
"A lot of the times," Katz said, "Salt doesn't come from foods you'd expect."
"Pick any commercial brand," Katz said, "And most of them are more concentrated in salt than 50 to 60 percent of the items in the salty snack aisle." Concentration, he added, is one easy marker consumers can use when determining how salty a food is and whether you should steer clear of it. If you figure you have around 2,000 calories allotted to you a day and the U.S. guidelines limit salt intake at just north of 2,000 mg, you want to be looking for foods that have around a 1:1 ratio of sodium to calories per serving. "If you rehab your taste buds and switch to pure, whole grain cereals like I have," he said, "you can really taste the salt. Consequently, I can eat Cheerios, but not for breakfast and definitely not with milk. I snack on them when I'm having a beer."
Katz said that a lot of people would be surprised to learn that seemingly sweet drinks, like chocolate milk, have a fair amount of sodium. And that's true even for low- or no-fat options, too. So why is there salt in sweet stuff? First, Katz explained, salt is a great preservative, so it extends the shelf life of products. But he cautioned that generally speaking, the longer the shelf life for a certain food, the shorter the life of a person. He also said that manufacturers combine flavor categories, i.e. salty and sweet, to stimulate the appetite in the hypothalamus. "It's like Thanksgiving, when you're so stuffed you think you couldn't possibly eat another thing, but then you switch from salty to savory with pie and suddenly, you can eat again," Katz explained. "You can engineer that same thing into certain foods."
"It's better to make your own rice and season it than to buy a flavored rice," said Dr. Susan Blum, an expert in functional medicine and founder of the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, N.Y. "Those packets of seasoning can be high in salt." Case in point: A single serving of one brand of heat-and-eat rice has 770 mg of sodium per one cup.
Salads are a great option, health-wise, but Blum cautioned that dressings can be a hidden source of salt. Many of them can pack 350 mg of sodium into a two-tablespoon serving. Another condiment to watch out for? Ketchup, which can have more than 150 mg of sodium in one tablespoon.
Another sweet one that packs a surprising amount of sodium is the heat-up breakfast pastry, which can have almost 200 mg of sodium per serving (normally, one pastry). And even though that means they pass the 1:1 salt to calorie test, Katz said it's bad news when sweet foods are adding to your daily dose of salt. "If deserts or sweet foods are pulling up your daily salt intake," he said, "What's bringing it down?"
You might think you're doing a good thing by passing on the chips in favor of seemingly healthier wheat crackers (which aren't always really whole wheat). And you might be, calories-wise. But one serving of a popular wheat cracker packs more than 340 mg of sodium.
When the LA County Department of Health decided to release a series of videos showing salt shockers, i.e. foods that are loaded with sodium, in honor of World Salt Awareness Week, it highlighted cottage cheese first. Why? Certain brands -- even fat-free ones! -- can have more than 400 mg of sodium in a single serving.