FDA explains what labels on your favorite lower-salt packaged foods really mean

Mechele R. Dillard's picture

The salt in most Americans' diets is too high, but it will surprise many to know that most of the salt they eat has little to do with how often they shake their salt shaker.

Americans, on the whole, eat too much salt. But, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, that salt shaker is probably not the culprit if you are one of those who needs to reduce sodium in your diet. In fact, over 75% of dietary sodium comes from packaged and restaurant foods, the FDA warns.

In addition to decreasing one’s dependence on packaged foods and eating out, the FDA suggests that checking labels on packaged foods can be a good idea to decrease sodium in one’s diet.

Understanding the Label

The %DV for sodium is based on 100% of the recommended amount of sodium, which is less than 2400 milligrams (mg) per day—about one TEASPOON of salt, the FDA says. And, if you are susceptible to high blood pressure, the FDA recommends limiting your sodium intake to a maximum of 1,500 mg per day. Americans, they add, eat on average 3,300 mg of salt per day.

The %DV listed is for one serving, but many packages contain more than one serving! Look at the serving size and how many servings you are actually consuming – if you eat two servings you get twice as much sodium (or double the %DV).

The %DV tells you whether a food contributes a little or a lot to your total daily diet. For example, 5%DV (120 mg) or less of sodium per serving is low, while 20%DV (480 mg) or more of sodium per serving is high

Product Claims

You can also check the front of the food package to quickly identify foods that may contain less sodium. But, different claims mean different things according to FDA guidelines:

  • Salt/Sodium-Free → Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
  • Very Low Sodium → 35 mg of sodium or less per serving
  • Low Sodium → 140 mg of sodium or less per serving
  • Reduced Sodium → At least 25% less sodium than in the original product
  • Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted → At least 50% less sodium than the regular product
  • No-Salt-Added or Unsalted → No salt is added during processing, but not necessarily sodium-free. Check the Nutrition Facts Label to be sure!

It’s Not Just Salt

Salt is the main source of sodium for most people, but some common food additives – like monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium nitrite, and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) – also contain sodium and contribute in lesser amounts to the total amount of “sodium” listed on the Nutrition Facts Label.

Don’t Go By Taste!

Surprisingly, some foods that don’t taste salty can still be high in sodium, so don’t use taste as a guide. For example, some foods that are high in sodium taste salty – like pickles or soy sauce. But there are also many foods – like cereals and pastries – that contain sodium but don’t taste salty. In addition, some foods that you eat several times a day, such as breads, add up to a lot of sodium even though each serving may not be high in sodium.

Salty Top 10

The FDA says that 40% of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from these 10 food types:

  1. Breads and rolls
  2. Cold cuts and cured meats (such as deli or packaged ham or turkey)
  3. Pizza
  4. Fresh and processed poultry
  5. Soups
  6. Sandwiches (such as hot dogs, hamburgers and submarine sandwiches)
  7. Cheese (natural and processed)
  8. Mixed pasta dishes (such as lasagna, spaghetti with meat sauce, and pasta salad)
  9. Mixed meat dishes (such as meat loaf with tomato sauce, beef stew, and chili)
  10. Snacks (such as chips, pretzels, popcorn, and crackers)

And, America’s total sodium intake breaks down like this:

  • 77% from packaged and restaurant food
  • 12% is naturally occurring in foods
  • 11% from adding salt to food while cooking or at the table

Want some tips on cutting sodium? Begin reducing the salt in your diet with these 5 simple steps.

Image: US Food and Drug Administration

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