Next time you pick up just about any food in a can, box, or bag, stop and do one thing – look at the Nutrition Facts Label on the package. Specifically, look at the milligrams of sodium it contains per serving. It may make you want to put it back on the shelf.
Some background – the difference between salt and sodium is salt is composed of two minerals, sodium, and chloride. Table salt contains about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. So “salt” is a blend of both sodium and chloride. Many foods contain sodium naturally. If we consume foods containing too much sodium, though, it can raise our risk of high blood pressure.
Many of our packaged foods, such as chips, pretzels, crackers, canned soups, canned vegetables, or processed food, are notoriously high in sodium. Then, of course, there are the low-salt to no-salt versions, but many people may still choose the original, full-sodium rendition. Since salt contains sodium, it is associated with increased blood pressure which increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke, of which 75 million people with hypertension in the U.S. would benefit from following a low-salt diet.
Have you ever wondered why these processed foods contain so much salt? There are two main reasons why food companies add this extra dose of sodium we don’t need:
- Flavor enhancer
Salt is a cheap, convenient method to flavor processed food. However, if they were to rely on using vegetables, chicken, or herbs and spices for flavoring, it would increase the cost of the canned good, possibly resulting in fewer sales.
But why would they need to dump salt into canned vegetables, for example? Wouldn’t the vegetable itself be flavorful enough without adding so much of this mineral? It probably would be, except that heat is used to kill any harmful bacteria present in the vegetables during the canning process. Even though this is a necessary step in the canning process and protects us from food poisoning, the high heat temperature also kills off the taste or natural flavor of the processed and canned veggies. The fix for this? Add lots of sodium to make up for the bland taste.
Centuries ago, it was discovered that salt could preserve food for a long time; to this day, food companies still use this ancient technique. Salt is composed of sodium and chloride ions that reduce the water in a food. Water is necessary for bacteria to grow, and if there is little to no water available, their growth is impossible. Salt also enhances fermentation, which can be used to preserve foods.
Sometimes additional chemicals will be added to foods along with salt. Some of these chemicals do the same job as salt by reducing water, but others work by altering chemical reactions to prevent spoilage of food and rancid fats. Examples of these chemicals include sodium acetate, sodium benzoate, sodium lactate, sodium nitrate, and sodium sulfite.
Keeping sodium intake from canned goods under control
We may not be able to control food companies’ use of excess sodium in canned goods, but we can control our food purchases at the grocery store.
The first step is to read how many milligrams of sodium per serving size are listed on the Nutrition Facts label. Remember that even though sodium is listed per serving, that may not mean the whole can. For example, if you eat a whole can of chicken soup, you are eating two or three servings, so you’d have to account for all the sodium in each serving size, which can add up to a boatload of sodium.
When it comes to soups, making your soup from scratch is your best bet on saving milligrams of sodium. This can be done using a low-sodium broth (choose one with no more than 300 milligrams of sodium or less per cup) and then add fresh or unseasoned frozen vegetables. The vegetables can be sautéed lightly in olive or canola oil first.
Look for and choose processed foods, preferably with no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving. If a processed food states “low sodium” or “no added salt,” it states that it does not have salt added, but it does not mean that it is a “sodium-free” food. So again, check the milligrams of sodium per serving on the Nutrition Facts label.
An effective way of reducing sodium content in canned goods by up to 40 percent is to empty the contents into a colander and rinse them under cold running water for about a minute.
Additional high-sodium foods to avoid
Other common processed foods high in sodium include:
- Pizza – frozen or fresh
- Baked goods – including bread and bun
- Processed cheese
- Lunch meats, bacon, and sausage
- Pasta meals in a box, like mac and cheese
- Spaghetti in a can
- Ramon noodles
- Sauces and gravies
- Packaged rice
- Restaurant foods, especially fast foods
Current Dietary Guidelines for Sodium
Most Americans consume an average of around 3400 milligrams of sodium daily. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day as part of a healthy eating pattern. Most people will benefit from a lower sodium intake, and with a few wiser food choices on high-sodium processed foods, it can be accomplished.
Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with a vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy. Dr. Samadi is a medical contributor to NewsMax TV and is also the author of The Ultimate MANual, Dr. Samadi’s Guide to Men’s Health and Wellness, available online both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911.