Low Sodium Labels: Be Careful What You Read Into Them

A new study indicates that not only are people attracted to the idea of lowering their sodium intake, but that same attraction leads to a few false assumptions.

It is pretty much common knowledge that lowering one's dietary sodium intake can lead to the prevention of or better maintenance of hypertension or high blood pressure. Many do so by cutting out or reducing the use of table salt in their food. Others, knowing that sodium isn't only added as a condiment or spice, look to decrease their sodium intake via the foods they purchase. (In fact, a recent Federal Drug Administration warning noted that 75 percent of an individual's sodium intake was derived from packaged and restaurant foods.) NPR reported this week that a new study indicates that not only are consumers finding low sodium labeling attractive in making more healthful food choices but that they also might be reading a little more into the low sodium label and the benefits a low sodium diet than actually exists.

Researchers at the University of Toronto found that participants found labels on a can of faux tomato soup was more appealing to consumers if the label mention that the product was low in sodium, prevented disease, or lowered blood pressure. About one-third of the participants in the study suffered from hypertension. This subgroup tended to be more positive about the low sodium labeling altogether.

Additional labeling of the product with "Tastes great!" was ineffective in making a final determination. But, all in all, many of the participants weren't quite certain why reduced sodium was a good thing, just that it was. And they believed it was good for great many things in addition to helping lower one's blood pressure.

When asked in if lowering sodium intake was beneficial in losing weight, alleviating constipation, controlling diabetes, and various other health issues, the participants believed that low sodium intake made a healthy impact on them all. (Unfortunately, as NPR pointed out, reducing one's sodium intake only affects blood pressure.)

"What we saw there was a halo effect [with the low-sodium claim]," Christina Wong explained. Wong, a graduate student and lead author of the study, went on: "They see a whole range of health benefits that are totally unrelated to the nutrient."

The study also found that consumers had an overall positive view towards reduced sodium products. According to NPR, manufacturers have shown reluctance in providing low sodium products due to a perceived consumer aversion.

But consumers should be wary of product labeling in and of itself. The terms used have specific FDA guidelines. For instance, sodium- or salt-free items aren't entirely lacking in salt and can contain up to 5 percent sodium per serving. Very low sodium can contain up to 35 mg, while Low Sodium can mean a serving could hold as much as 130 mg. No salt added or unsalted does not mean salt-free, but that no sodium was added during the packaging process. Reduced sodium or Lightly Salted (Light in Sodium) is dependent on the original salt content of the regular product, the former containing 25 percent of the original amount, the latter containing 50 percent.

The recommended daily allowance of salt is 2,400 mg (about as much as is contained in a teaspoon of salt). For those with high blood pressure, 1,500 mg per day is recommended.

The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

(photo credit: Garitzko, Wikimedia Commons)

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