Processed Foods & the Effect on Sodium Levels

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Processed Foods & the Effect on Sodium Levels

Sodium is an essential mineral that maintains homeostasis in your body and is found in many foods. Even though it is found in many foods, table salt is one of the most important sources of sodium in our diet and is used to flavor, enhance texture, and stabilize many foods you eat. 

At the same time, salt is also used as a food preservative, as bacteria cannot grow in the presence of high concentrations of salt, meaning that high quantities of salt in meals might not just be for taste.  Salt helps inhibit the growth of germs and organisms in some foods that could degrade or shorten their shelf life. There are also many other chemicals that contain sodium that is used in the preparation of many foods to improve food safety, extend its shelf life, and improve texture. Considering this, many processed foods have high sodium content. 

Sodium in Processed Foods

processed foods

Sodium is present in many processed foods for a variety of reasons. For example: 

  • Sodium enhances the flavor of foods: it adds a salty flavor, can improve the taste of foods, and can mask any bitter tastes that might be present in the foods you eat.
  • Sodium preserves the freshness of foods: Salt’s ability to prevent the growth of bacteria and other organisms which cause diseases means that sodium can extend the shelf life of foods.
  • Sodium enhances the texture and appearance of foods: Sodium can make foods look fuller or thicker. It can also improve the color and tone of foods and preserve the moisture in meat products. It also helps prevent unfavorable chemical reactions between ingredients when baking certain foods.

Because sodium serves many functions in processed foods, some meals you eat might not taste salty but still be high in sodium. Therefore, assessing a food's sodium level by the flavor is not a reliable way of determining the amount of sodium you are consuming. For example, processed foods like cereal and pastries contain sodium but do not taste salty. Furthermore, some staples that you might have several times a day, like bread,  might accumulate to high sodium consumption throughout the day.

In the United States, processed and restaurant foods account for more than 70% of the average person's daily salt consumption. If you are looking to reduce your dietary salt intake, the best place to start is by monitoring and reducing the amount of prepared and processed meals you might have on a daily basis. Despite the fact that processed meals are more likely to have greater salt levels, there are some efforts by food producers to reduce the salt content of their products to meet mounting concerns about health problems that are linked to high sodium intake. For example, excessive sodium consumption has been linked to hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In spite of this, 89-90% of children and adults in the U.S. surpassed the recommended salt consumption limit between 2009-2012 based on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. 

processed foods

According to the CDC and What We Eat in America, the following foods are some of the main contributors to dietary salt intake in American diets:

  • Rolls and bread
  • Fast foods like pizza, burritos, and tacos.
  • Cold-cut or cured meats
  • Canned soups
  • Savory snacks like chips, popcorn, pretzels, snack mixes, and crackers
  • Cheese

If you are trying to reduce your salt intake, you might start by reducing these foods in your diet. 

The sodium content of packaged foods

The Institute of Medicine advises lowering salt in packaged foods to reduce the general consumption of sodium, considering that most sodium in the diets of the general population comes from store-bought foods. Here is a table that shows the sodium levels of different kinds of packaged foods.

Food Group Amount (mg)
Condiments, sauces, and dips 191
Salty snacks 138
Processed meats 128
Canned soups 101
Grain-based desserts 72
Breakfast cereals 49

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