Sodium is an essential nutrient. Sodium helps regulate fluids and blood pressure, and keeps muscles and nerves running smoothly. It’s needed to maintain the right balance of fluids in your body, and for the proper functioning of your muscles and nerves. You probably think of sodium as table salt but in fact sodium is also found in many foods, and not only those that taste salty.
The quantity of sodium we need is very small, amounting to just over half a teaspoon of salt per day for adults, and even less for children and infants.
Eating much more sodium than this can be bad for you. Ingesting high amounts can increase your risk of stroke or heart disease, and can raise your blood pressure. Older adults and people from certain ethnic backgrounds can be more sensitive to sodium and may react negatively to even smaller quantities.
Some sources of sodium
Only a tiny amount of the sodium you eat comes from adding salt at the table.
Some sodium occurs naturally in the foods we eat, but the majority of it comes from processed or prepared items, like pre-made meals, deli meats, cheeses, pizzas, soups, sauces, chips, and salty snacks.
- chicken breast, deli meat, 2 slices = 494 mg of sodium;
- cheese, cheddar, 50 g = 311 mg sodium;
- condensed vegetable soup, with water added, 1 cup = 868 mg of sodium;
- canned tomato sauce for spaghetti, ½ cup = 652 mg of sodium;
- potato chips, 1 small bag = 229 mg of sodium;
Source: Health Canada, Nutrient Value of Some Common Foods (2008)
Sodium also comes from foods you wouldn’t consider salty, like bread and baked goods. For example, two slices of commercial whole-wheat bread contain 368 mg of sodium, which is already 25% of the daily amount an adult needs!
Since too much of it can be harmful to your health, it’s a good idea to reduce your sodium intake. The easiest way to do this is to eat more foods that contain no sodium or are naturally low in sodium, like fresh or frozen unsalted vegetables and fruits.
Fresh or frozen unsalted meat and fish also have lower sodium content per serving, and some whole grains are completely sodium-free. Canned foods tend to have more sodium than other packaged foods, so dried lentils, peas, and beans are a better option.
Foods that are low in sodium
Find out how much sodium you’re consuming by looking at a product’s food label.
For processed foods, the % Daily Value (% DV) on the Nutrition Facts table is a better indicator of how much sodium is in an item than product health claims or ingredient lists. This is because the labels include sodium from all sources — not just table salt. A claim like “reduced sodium” might mean a food has less than its original version but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a moderate or low sodium level.
CFIA: Nutrition Labelling (external link)
Remember: 5% DV or less is a little and 15% DV or more is a lot, and this applies to all nutrients. Examples of low-sodium foods are whole grains cooked in water, canned fruit, yogurt, and unsalted nuts. High-sodium foods include pretzels, dill pickles, processed cheese, and cured meats.
Health Canada: Daily Value % (external link)
Individual brands of the same item will vary in sodium content, so it’s important to check the Nutrition Facts table when you shop.
Sodium in Canada
Most Canadians eat far more sodium than they need for their health — over twice the recommended daily amount. Overconsumption of sodium is responsible for the conditions that cause up to 16,000 premature deaths in Canada annually.
PDF: Centre for Science in the Public Interest
Source: Centre for Science in the Public Interest, 2012
Much of this sodium comes from eating processed foods, including fast food and restaurant food.
Salt is an acquired taste and the more we have of it the less we taste it. If you grew up eating high-sodium foods, it’s easy to continue to do so. But it is possible to reduce your intake by slowly decreasing the amount of sodium in your diet. A gradual change will allow your taste to adjust over time, making the difference less noticeable.
(external link: Government of Canada)