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Salt: The Bitter Truth 


How much salt do you think you consume in a day?  As you sit back and ponder this, you’re probably counting up how many potato chips, pretzels and peanuts you’ve eaten plus the additional table salt you shook onto vegetables and other foods.  But, did you remember to include salt from the ketchup you put on your fries, the soy sauce you added to your rice or that small can of soup you had as a snack?  Add in these hidden sources of salt and a reasonable number now is much higher than you’d like.

“The daily value or what we tell people to aim for is no more than a teaspoon of salt a day, which is about 2,300 mg of sodium,” says Cheryl Kleve, a registered and certified dietitian with St. Mary’s Hospital.  “In reality, most Americans are eating 3,000-7,000 mg a day!”

Only 20 percent of that incredible total comes from our salt shakers.  The remaining 80 percent is found hidden in foods that sometimes don’t taste salty at all.

It’s one of the reasons you will never see 33-year-old Josh Williamson with salt in hand.

It started when I was real young,” he says.  “From what I can remember, I’ve never added it.  It’s not that I don’t like the taste; I just never add it.  I don’t see a reason to.”

Williamson said in high school he ate all kinds of foods without ever thinking twice.  But even then, added salt was something he avoided.

“No matter if there is or is not visible salt on food, I will never add it.  There’s so much in food already,” he says.  “Not only that, but now I know the health repercussions that can happen when you eat too much.”

He’s right.  Eating lots of salt can do some significant and silent damage to your body.  As salt builds up in the bloodstream it causes more fluid to be absorbed resulting in extra pressure in the blood vessels.  This is known as high blood pressure.  And prolonged high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, kidney disease and even stroke.

“We call high blood pressure the silent killer,” says Kleve.  “You can have really high levels without ever noticing a thing.  So getting your blood pressure checked frequently – even if it is just the free ones at the pharmacy – is a good idea.”

So how can we reduce our blood pressure and thus our risk for premature death?  A January 2010 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates if every American cut their salt intake each day by just one-half teaspoon, we’d decrease the number of heart disease cases by 120,000 and save 92,000 lives a year!

But as we learned earlier, cutting out salt, especially hidden salt, may be easier said than done.

“Reducing your salt consumption really means being a more informed consumer because salt hides in some surprising places,” says Kleve.  “In fast food they even put more salt in the buns.  Watch out for sauces, things like ketchup and especially pre-packaged foods.  You wouldn’t think rice pilaf has a lot of sodium, for instance, but it does.”

Some ready-to-eat cereals even have a fair share of sodium.  And instant oatmeal is one to watch out for as well.  The pre-packed kind has roughly 230 mg of sodium per serving whereas there’s virtually none when you make it from scratch.

Other sodium “landmines” include most canned soups, tomato sauce, condiments such as steak sauce and baking powder. And even though a package implies the food is healthy, be sure you take a good look at the nutrition label to see the amount of sodium it contains. 

Kleve cautions, “When you look at products with low- and reduced-sodium labels, they don’t mean the same thing.  Low-sodium means 140 mg or less per serving.  Reduced-sodium means the usual sodium is reduced by 25%.”

So this means a can of condensed soup that normally contains 1,000 mg of sodium per serving can be labeled “reduced-sodium” when it still contains 750 mg per serving – or 1/3 your daily allowance!  That makes it a healthier choice but not the healthiest.

Even products labeled “unsalted” or “no salt added” can be tricky.  These terms do not tell you the overall salt content, only that no additional salt was added in the processing of the food.  So if the food is naturally full of salt, it still will have high levels of sodium.

The bottom line: the easiest way to reduce your salt intake is to limit or eliminate processed foods from your diet and prepare more dishes at home from scratch.

“Salt is an acquired taste -- the more you eat, the more you want,” says Kleve.  “So reduce your salt intake gradually and you’ll adjust.”

When cooking, she says reach for fresh herbs and veggies versus those from a can.  Chicken stock made from scratch with fresh onions, celery, carrots and strong herbs is one way to replace the flavor you lose by leaving out salt. 

In addition, try using vinegar or seasonings like Mrs. Dash® to spice up foods.  And finally, for fish, use a slice of lime or lemon on top to add a slightly salty flavor without the added sodium.

While you might wonder why more isn’t being done to regulate the foods we eat, remember: food manufacturers make what people will buy.  If we want to change the level of salt in processed foods, Kleve says we need to vote with our wallets.

“Don’t go to restaurants with high fat, high salt foods,” she says.  “And remember grocery store shelves are very competitive.  It’s about what product sells the best. So if you stop buying the high sodium items, they will slowly disappear from the shelf.”

Sneaky Sodium

Just because something doesn’t taste salty, doesn’t mean there isn’t any sodium in it.  Avoid these major sources:

  • Canned vegetables
  • Soups
  • Ready-to-eat cereals
  • Celery salt & garlic salt
  • Steak sauces
  • Mustard
  • Ketchup
  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Salty snacks (e.g., potato chips)
  • Club soda
  • Hot dogs, bacon, ham & salami
  • Fast food


Stop Salt in its Tracks

Most Amreicans can safely consume up to one teaspoon of salt a day and maintain good health.  But those with heart disease, high blood pressure and African Americans are at much higher risk and should consume no more than 1,500 mg a day (about 2/3 of a teaspoon).  Here are some tips for cutting back:

  • Reduce or stop eating fast foods
  • Rinse canned vegetables before eating
  • Choose fresh fruits and vegetables when possible
  • Read food labels and check sodium content


Did you Know?

We’re not born to crave salt.  In fact, studies show babies do not respond well to its flavor.  But once acquired, the more you eat, the more your body will want.  But after 6-12 weeks on a low-sodium diet, the foods you used to love will seem super salty.


Deciphering the Nutritional Data

Food labels can be confusing.  Here’s what the following salt-related terms mean:

Sodium-free: Fewer than 5 mg per serving

Very Low Sodium: Less than 35 mg per serving

Low Sodium: Less than 140 mg per serving

Reduced Sodium: Salt content is 25% less than original product

Unsalted, No Salt Added:  Only contains salt that is naturally occurring


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