As with all aspects of our diet, moderation is key when it comes to how much salt we are taking in. With the convenience of processed foods, it’s easy to get more than what we really need every day. Read below to find out more about sodium, how it affects us, and what to watch out for if you are trying to cut back.
The terms “salt” and “sodium” are used interchangeably, but table salt is actually composed of two minerals: sodium and chloride. (The two elements together form the chemical compound NaCl, for those who want to remember their high school chemistry.) Sodium is an essential mineral, and most of it that we consume comes in the form of salt. We need sodium for normal nerve and muscle function, as well as keeping the right balance of water and minerals in our bodies. However, most Americans consume far more than what is needed.
|Sodium (mg) daily limit
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-20251
Sodium consumption in the United States is typically well above the recommendation made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The average amount of sodium consumed per day is 3,393mg for people ages one and up.1 That is a far cry from the suggested maximum of 2,300mg. To give some perspective, 2,300mg is the equivalent of just one teaspoon of table salt. Organizations such as the American Heart Association recommend an even lower daily limit of just 1,500mg of sodium in the interest of heart health.2
Only about 10% of the sodium we ingest occurs naturally in the foods we eat. Most of the excess salt we consume doesn’t come from cooking at home and sprinkling a bit on top of our favorite meal; the majority of our sodium intake (about 70%) comes from processed food produced outside the home, including what we eat at restaurants.3
Sodium plays many roles in our food supply, especially in processed foods. Utilizing salt when cooking isn’t all bad; just like with most parts of our diet, moderation is important. Along with techniques like brining and curing, salt is an essential part of a number of food processing methods and also has a big impact on flavor and texture.
Salt is one of the five taste elements in our perception of flavor (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami).4 Adding sodium to your food enhances the salty taste that some prefer. It can also mask the unpleasant sensation of bitterness and even balance out sweet and sour tastes. And while it might seem counterintuitive, sodium can enhance the sensory perception of sweetness; salted caramel is a great example of this.
Sodium has long been used as a preservative in foods. It helps increase the shelf-life of food products by preventing the growth of spoilage organisms and pathogens. The addition of salt draws moisture out of foods, making them less conducive to microbial growth.5
Adding salt can enhance a food product’s color and also help it appear thicker or fluffier. Salt alters the structure of proteins and impacts how those proteins interact with other components, such as fats; these changes directly impact the final texture of a food product (i.e., juicier meat or firmer bread).
Our kidneys control how much sodium we have in our bodies. If we aren’t getting enough, the kidneys hold onto it; if there is too much, salt is excreted in our urine. But if we intake too much salt and our kidneys can’t get rid of it fast enough, our body begins to hold on to fluid in order to dilute the sodium. The subsequent increased blood volume and extra work on the heart can lead to stiffening of the arteries and high blood pressure.6 Having uncontrolled high blood pressure raises your risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney disease, and vision loss.7
Luckily, the negative impact that excess salt consumption has on blood pressure is not permanent. A meta-analysis of 34 clinical trials concluded that even a modest reduction in sodium intake over four weeks significantly reduced blood pressure and, thereby, the risk of cardiovascular disease.8
If you’re wondering what steps to take to limit the amount of sodium you consume every day, there are some easy things you can do.
The easiest way to find out the sodium content of a food per serving is by checking out its nutrition label.10 The nutrition facts will have a % Daily Value (or %DV) next to the sodium listing; anything below 5% is considered low in sodium, and foods with 20% or more are high in sodium. It’s important to check the nutrition label instead of relying on claims made on the front of food product packaging. Marketing phrases can imply reduced salt content, but they may not mean what you think. Here’s a breakdown of common terms found on food packaging and what they really mean.11
|One serving contains
|Less than 5mg of sodium
|Very low sodium
|35mg or less of sodium
|140mg or less of sodium
|Reduced or less sodium
|At least 25% less sodium than the regular version of the product
|Light in sodium
|At least 50% less sodium than the regular version of the product
|50% less sodium than what is normally added
|No salt added, unsalted
|No salt is added during processing to a food that usually contains salt. If the food is still not sodium-free, this must be stated on the label.
Not all salt has the same texture; salts with a larger grain size can have less sodium per teaspoon than one teaspoon of finer-grain salt. Be sure to check out the nutrition label on the product packaging to get an idea of how much is in one serving. We’ve listed below some of the most common types of salt you will find at the grocery store.
This type of salt is the most common and likely what is in your salt shaker. Iodized table salt is fortified with iodine, a necessary mineral for thyroid health. While iodine deficiency is not very common today, the supplementation of iodine to our table salt was adopted in the 1920s when goiter (a symptom of iodine insufficiency) was prevalent.12 Even though iodized table salt is small in size, it has a strong flavor.
Sea salt is sourced directly from evaporated saltwater and is minimally processed. This textured salt also contains trace minerals, including iodine. (Note, though, that you can’t rely on sea salt to deliver a meaningful amount of dietary iodine; every quarter teaspoon of noniodized sea salt can provide 1% of your daily requirement of iodine, compared to 52% from iodized salt.) Although sea salt is less processed than table salt, they both have the same sodium content by weight. You can purchase both fine and coarse textured varieties of sea salt.
This coarse variety of salt, often called “rock salt,” comes from underground salt deposits. Despite the name, kosher salt isn’t a kosher food; rather, its name refers to its use in the kosher butchering process, where the salt draws blood and moisture from the surface of raw meat. Kosher salt does not contain iodine.
Most salt substitutes replace sodium chloride with potassium chloride. While you can use salt substitutes the same way as table salt in your meals, some say that potassium chloride has a bitter taste. And it’s important to note that sometimes, like when baking, salt just can’t be totally replaced; this can cause important chemical reactions between ingredients to not work as they should.
For those considering using potassium chloride as a salt substitute, please take note that it is not a great fit for everyone.13 Be sure to check in with your physician before using a salt substitute, particularly if you have kidney disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, and/or diabetes. Some medications, like angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, may also cause unwanted interactions.
Another safer option for those who need to reduce their salt intake is to play with a variety of herbs and spices. You can experiment with your own combinations of flavors or purchase premade, low-sodium seasoning blends at the grocery store. You may surprise yourself that by expanding your palate and exploring new flavors, you may not crave a salty taste the way you used to.
Surprisingly, according to the CDC, 40% of the salt we ingest comes from just 10 foods.14 Processed foods and the meals we eat at restaurants are the biggest culprits. It’s also notable that food doesn’t necessarily have to taste salty to be high in sodium. So, if you are looking for ways to cut back on salt, take a peek at the chart below of the top 10 most common sources of sodium per age group to find foods that you may want to eliminate from your diet.
|For the general population
|For those ages 6-18
|1. Breads and rolls
|2. Mexican-mixed dishes
|4. Cold cuts and cured meats
|4. Breads and rolls
|5. Cold cuts and cured meats
|6. Burritos and tacos
|7. Savory snacks (chips, popcorn, pretzels, crackers, snack mixes)
|7. Savory snacks (chips, popcorn, pretzels, crackers, snack mixes)
|9. Plain milk
|10. Eggs and omelets
Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, 9th Edition. USDA.
American Heart Association Editorial Staff. (2021). How much sodium should I eat per day? American Heart Association.
Harnack, L.J., Cogswell, M.E., Shikany, J.M., et. al. (2017). Sources of Sodium in US Adults from 3 Geographic Regions. Circulation, 135, 1775-1783.
Crosby, G. (2016). Super-tasters and Non-tasters: Is It Better to be Average? The Nutrition Source, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Institute of Medicine Committee on Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake. (2010). Preservation and Physical Property Roles of Sodium in Foods. In Henney, J.E., Taylor, C.L., & Boon, C.S. (Eds), Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States. National Academies Press (U.S.).
Grillo, A., Salvi, L., Coruzzi, P., Salvi, P., & Parati, G. (2019). Sodium Intake and Hypertension. Nutrients, 11(9).
American Heart Association. (2022). Health Threats from High Blood Pressure.
He, F.J., Li, J., & MacGregor, G.A. (2013). Effect of Longer‐term Modest Salt Reduction on Blood Pressure. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 4, CD004937.
Ndanuko, R. N., Ibrahim, R., Hapsari, R. A., Neale, E. P., Raubenheimer, D., Charlton, K. E. (2021). Association between the Urinary Sodium to Potassium Ratio and Blood Pressure in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Advances in Nutrition, 12(5), 1751-1767.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label. FDA.
American Heart Association. (2017). Food Packaging Claims. AHA.
Leung, A. M., Braverman, L. E., & Pearce, E. N. (2012). History of U.S. Iodine Fortification and Supplementation. Nutrients, 4(11), 1740-1746.
Hames, M.V. (2023). Mayo Clinic Minute: Are You Using a Salt Substitute? Mayo Clinic.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Sodium Intake and Health. CDC.