Top 10 Sources of Salt in Your Diet

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Bread and rolls are the No. 1 source of sodium in the American diet, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Salty snacks like chips and pretzels come in at No. 10.

The finding seems unlikely, since bread isn’t actually saltier than chips or many of the other foods on the list. But Americans tend to eat more bread and rolls, compared with other foods.

Overall, the report found, Americans are overconsuming sodium in a big way. The average American’s daily sodium intake was 3,266 mg a day, which far exceeds the government’s recommended daily limit of 2,300 mg. The limit is set lower, at 1,500 mg a day, for risk groups, including blacks, people over 51, and those with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease — that’s about half the U.S. population. Nearly 90% of all Americans eat too much salt, which increases their chances of developing hypertension, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

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The study found that 10 foods account for 44% of of all the sodium we eat. Broken down, they are:

  1. Bread and rolls, 7.4%
  2. Cold cuts/cured meats, 5.1%
  3. Pizza, 4.9%
  4. Fresh and processed poultry, 4.5%
  5. Soups, 4.3%
  6. Sandwiches like cheeseburgers, 4%
  7. Cheese, 3.8%
  8. Pasta dishes like spaghetti with meat sauce, 3.3%
  9. Meat dishes like meatloaf with tomato sauce, 3.2%
  10. Snacks, including chips, pretzels, popcorn and puffs, 3.1%

For the most part, people are buying these foods premade at the store or eating them in restaurants: 75% of all the sodium we consume in a day comes from food we don’t prepare at home. In contrast, only about 5% to 6% of salt is added during cooking, and an equal amount is added from the shaker at the table. “These results suggest a comprehensive approach is needed that includes reductions in the sodium content in processed foods from stores, restaurants and other food service locations,” the authors of the study write.

It would also help for people to avoid processed, packaged foods, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and try to cook more at home. Another tip: eat less overall. The CDC also recommends studying the Nutrition Facts label on food before you buy it. A slice of white bread, for instance, can vary widely in sodium content from 80 mg to 230 mg. The sodium in one cup of canned chicken soup can range from 100 mg to 940 mg, depending on the brand. A cheeseburger from a fast-food joint can contain a whopping 1,690 mg of sodium by itself — never mind the fries and soda that typically come with it — which is nearly three-quarters of your daily max.

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The CDC report was based on food surveys conducted among 7,227 Americans, including more than 2,500 children and teens, in 2007-08. Participants were surveyed twice, about 3 to 10 days apart, and asked each time to recall what they had eaten in the previous 24 hours. The researchers then categorized the various foods and tallied their sodium content.

Most participants reported eating foods from one or more of the top 10 ranked food categories during at least one survey: about 80% had eaten bread or rolls in the previous 24 hours, 56% had eaten cheese, 51% salty snacks, and 48% had had poultry.

If we could reduce the sodium content in the top 10 foods by 25%, the report suggests the average American’s daily sodium intake could drop by 11%, or 360 mg. That in turn could avert up to 28,000 deaths and save $7 billion in health-care costs a year.

See the entire CDC report here, and a consumer-friendly summary here.