Quick, name a food that contains too much salt.
If you’re like most people, you won’t have any trouble identifying the usual suspects. (French fries, chips and pretzels—we’re looking at you.)
The leading sources of excess sodium in the average American diet are less obvious.
Packaged foods such as bread, desserts and even canned vegetables—vegetables, for Pete’s sake!—can be prepared with alarmingly high salt levels.
That should be a cause for universal concern.
While there’s been some debate about precise levels, current guidelines call for an intake of 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.
The American Heart Association goes even further, recommending all American adults try to limit themselves to 1,500 milligrams per day. This is also the level recommended for people with high blood pressure and heart disease.
African Americans are also advised to stick to the lower level.
The reality? The average American eats well over twice that amount, or about 3,400 milligrams a day, and sometimes more.
“Most people don’t realize that the problem isn’t using their salt shaker, but all the foods they eat with those hidden sources,” said Caren Dobreff, RD, projects dietitian at Spectrum Health.
Such as? “Toast and cereal,” Dobreff said. “Because sodium is widely used for flavor, as a leavening agent (think baking soda), as a preservative, it turns up in places you don’t expect.” Portion sizes can add to the confusion since few people limit themselves to a single slice of bread or a half cup of cereal.
The immediate impact of too much salt can be a bloated feeling due to water retention.
“Water retention can make your socks or shoes or waistband feel snug,” Dobreff said.
Over time, too much sodium may increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart failure, as well as osteoporosis, stomach cancer, kidney disease and headaches.
The best defense: Tune up your sodium radar.
Restaurant foods contribute to about a quarter of the typical American’s dietary sodium. Meals prepared at home account for another 10 percent. Surprisingly, less than 5 percent of dietary salt is added at the table.
This means the worst offenders—about 65 percent, reports the American Heart Association—are foods we buy at the store.
Here’s how to protect yourself from sneaky salt attacks:
Read the label
Manufacturers of packaged foods must list nutritional information on the label. This includes listing sodium content.
The fine print will help you discover, for example, that 3 ounces of deli meat such as ham or turkey can contain up to 1,050 milligrams of sodium. A cup of chicken noodle soup packs 940 milligrams, a slice of American cheese has 460 milligrams and a piece of bread has 230 milligrams. That’s pretty salty.
Check chicken labels, too, especially if the package notes, “Contains broth.” Meat processors often plump the chicken by injecting it with sodium, improving moisture retention. This enhanced chicken can increase sodium content as much as 440 milligrams.
Most red meat cuts have 100 milligrams or less, but processed meat—think cold cuts, sausages and hot dogs—can have hundreds of milligrams of added salt.
Research your restaurant favorites
While it’s harder to learn what’s in your favorite restaurant foods, most national chains have nutrition details on their websites.
A little digging before you get there will help you discover that a slice of pizza at your local shop may well have 760 milligrams of sodium, while a cheeseburger has a whopping 1,690 milligrams. At some fast food joints, just 3 ounces of breaded chicken strips contain 900 milligrams of sodium.
And don’t be fooled when restaurants label something low- or reduced-sodium. Reduced-sodium soy sauce, for example, can still have as much as 500 milligrams per serving.
Cook from scratch
Cooking from scratch offers the most control over how much salt winds up on your plate. A tomato, for example, contains a mere 6 milligrams of sodium. But half a cup of canned low-sodium diced tomatoes has already more than tripled to 20 milligrams.
A helping of regular canned tomatoes is 10 times saltier, at 220 milligrams.
“Look for ways to create flavor explosions,” Dobreff said. She recommends high-impact seasoning like citrus, vinegar, herbs and spices, such as cumin and chili powder.
Don’t get duped
As appealing as some popular gourmet salts sound—pink Himalayan, Hawaiian black lava, grey sea salt, kosher salt and even dusting salt—they’re still just sodium chloride.
“Some people like to experiment with them for flavor and some are prepared more naturally,” Dobreff said. “But the sodium is roughly the same.”
Plan a counterattack
When you’ve got a major salt craving, play nutritional offense. Keep whole fresh fruits and vegetables and unsalted roasted nuts and seeds on hand. We tend to snack on what we can see and what our arms can reach.
“Buy a lower-sodium type of pretzels or chips, for example, and count out the amount of a single serving,” Dobreff said. “Then enjoy them. But be careful to balance them out with foods that day that are high in potassium, such as bananas, citrus fruits, papayas, avocados or potatoes.”