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Salt Hides in Unexpected Places

Salt Hides in Unexpected Places

If I told you a handful of potato chips was full of salt, you probably wouldn't be surprised. But what you might not know is how much salt is in a frozen meal, a slice of bread or canned vegetables. Eating too much salt has been linked to high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack, stroke and even impaired blood vessel function. As a nation, we need to cut back.

There's no better time than today. Every August 29th is national More Herbs, Less Salt day. (It really is, look it up!) In honor of that holiday, I'd like to tell you about some of the surprising places salt is hiding.

To better understand what the numbers mean, keep these things in mind.

  • First, the average American is supposed to eat between 2,000 and 2,400 calories a day.
  • Second, in a healthy diet, sodium shouldn't exceed 2,400 milligrams (mg.) per day, or about one teaspoon total in everything you eat and drink.
  • Third, if you're on a low sodium diet, that number could go as low as 1,500 mg. daily.

Frozen meals offer a wide variety of food choices that are relatively cheap and easy to prepare. Many companies specifically market to the calorie-conscious like Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice and Smart Ones. While they've done a pretty good job at lowering calories, fat and sugar, the average sodium levels are high. To give you an idea, I entered the calories and sodium for 20 frozen dinners from each brand to come up with an average.

The winner was Healthy Choice with a moderate 295.5 calories and 541 mg. of sodium per meal. Lean Cuisine wasn't far behind with 293 calories and 615.5 mg. of sodium. Weight Watchers Smart Ones had the lowest average calorie count of 277.5 but the highest level of sodium at 676.5 mg. Now before you rush out and start buying Healthy Choice frozen meals, keep in mind they still have nearly TWICE as much salt per serving than is recommended for a healthy diet. But they were far better than the regular frozen meal options.

Marie Callenders averaged 451 calories and 1137.5 mg. of sodium per meal. While Swanson had a heart-stopping 572.5 calories and 1600.5 mg. of sodium, and that was only the average! One Swanson meal called the Hungry Man Roasted Carved Turkey Dinner had a frightening 1,450 calories and 5,410 mg. of sodium, in a single serving. Quite simply those are foods that should never be eaten, by anybody.

Click Here to see the spreadsheet of Frozen Foods
and Bread in Excel format.

Bread can be a great source of heart-healthy fiber, but beware of what's hidden inside. Both white and whole wheat average about 90 calories a slice but around 170 mg. of sodium. If you're trying to cut back, choose low or salt-free bread from companies like Ezekiel or Alvarado. Because low sodium breads don't sell as fast as other varieties, you'll often find them in the freezer section of your supermarket. While you're checking out the label, look for brands that say 100% whole wheat and have at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.

Canned vegetables are convenient, don't require refrigeration and stay good for years. You'll typically find four varieties on the shelf. I'll use Del Monte cut green beans as an example. The standard can of fresh-cut green beans has 390 mg. of sodium per serving and 3.5 servings per can. That's 1,365 mg. of sodium in a can with only 70 calories of food. The can labeled organic is exactly the same. Neither one is an acceptable choice.

Move down the store shelf a little and you'll see Del Monte also offers a can with 50% less salt. That's better, it has just 665 mg. of sodium poured on those 70 calories of beans. But if you look just a little more, you'll see cans with the label "No Salt Added." Those have just the naturally occurring salt found in the produce, so that can of No Salt Added green beans has only 35 mg. of sodium. Make sure all your canned vegetables have "No Salt Added" on the label.

Food Label Tip: To quickly see if the food you want has a reasonable amount of sodium, check the nutrition label. The milligrams of sodium shouldn't be higher than the total calories. For example, a 100 calorie slice of bread shouldn't have more than 100 mg. of sodium. If it has more, look for a lower salt option.

Be Careful of Salt Substitutes

Many substitutes have potassium chloride in place of the sodium chloride. For most people, that's all right. But people with kidney problems are often unable to get rid of excess potassium, making salt substitutes dangerous when eaten in larger amounts.

If you take medication for your heart, kidney or liver, check with your doctor before taking a salt substitute.

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Update 8/27/2014