Why do processed foods contain so much sodium?

Answers from Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D.

Salt (sodium chloride) serves a number of purposes. It helps prevent spoiling by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, yeast and mold. Salt also brings out the flavors in food. For example, salt accentuates the sweetness in cakes and cookies. Salt also helps disguise metallic or chemical aftertastes in products such as soft drinks. In addition, salt reduces the perception of dryness in foods such as crackers and pretzels. But must processed foods contain so much salt? Many food and nutrition experts think not.

Many people eat far more sodium than they need — with processed foods contributing as much as 75 percent of the sodium in the typical American diet.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day — or 1,500 mg if you're age 51 or older, or if you are black or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

To reduce the salt in your diet, try these tips:

  • Eat more fresh foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, poultry, fish and unprocessed grains. (Only a small amount of sodium is found naturally in these foods.)
  • Replace traditional high-sodium foods with low-sodium products or products without added salt.
  • When eating out, request that salt not be added to your food. Ask for sauces and salad dressings on the side so that you can control the amount you use.
  • Use herbs and spices — rather than salt — to flavor your food.
Feb. 26, 2011