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Publix GreenWise Market Magazine - July 2007

Shake the Sodium Habit

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SaltHint: It's not all coming from the salt shaker.

What do canned chicken noodle soup, rice pilaf mix, and hot dogs have in common? Besides being among America's most popular foods, they all are loaded with sodium, the element found abundantly in salt. Feast on all three at the same meal, and it's like eating a heaping spoonful of salt. Thanks to an upswing in processed foods and dining out, many dinner plates are brimming with sodium.

This free flow of sodium has doctors concerned. "Sodium attracts water. This increase in fluid makes your heart have to work harder, which increases blood pressure," says Lynn Goldstein, a New York-based registered dietitian. The higher a person's salt intake, the higher their blood pressure tends to be. And keeping your blood pressure within normal range can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease.

Even though your body requires sodium to function, it needs only about 500 mg per day. Meanwhile, the average American eats between 2,400 and 7,200 mg per day. In fact, humans have been addicted to the crystalline stuff for centuries. Salt was so highly prized throughout history that people fought over it. Salt was coveted not only for its flavor enhancement, but also for its preservative properties before refrigeration.

"Unless you have high blood pressure and require a more restrictive diet, the goal is to be moderate in sodium intake," says Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 calls for reduction of sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams per day, equivalent to about a teaspoon of salt.

The American Medical Association (AMA) is really taking sodium seriously. In 2006 the organization announced a new policy aimed at curbing America's appetite for salt. The AMA is pushing for warnings on high-sodium foods and a reduction by at least 50 percent over the next 10 years in the amount of sodium in processed foods, fast food products, and restaurant meals.

Sodium doesn't come just from the salt used to flavor food products; it is also found in many food additives such as monosodium glutamate and sodium benzoate.

"Processed food is where a lot of our sodium comes from," Kava says. Many frozen dinners contain more than half the sodium a person should have in a whole day, and restaurant meals can contribute more than double the daily recommendation.

A heavy hand with the salt shaker can further push up sodium intake. Remember, a single teaspoon of salt contains more than an entire day's worth of sodium. And what about gourmet sea salts? "Natural sea salt is a better salt to cook with because it naturally contains minerals and electrolytes other than just sodium," Goldstein says. But beware: It contains as much sodium as traditional salt.

One way to keep sodium levels at bay is to cook more. "If you cooked your food from scratch and used small amounts of [salt] in your cooking, you would likely never get too much sodium," says Goldstein.

Whole foods, from fresh fruits and vegetables to whole grains and fresh animal proteins, are naturally low in sodium. It's what you do to these wholesome foods that can cause harm. Instead of salting dishes, Goldstein suggests sprinkling in garlic, herbs, and sodium-free seasonings to accent their natural flavors. Don't forget that many condiments, such as soy sauce, can spike the sodium level of dishes, too.

When you turn to convenience foods, look for low sodium or unsalted varieties. Read food labels, starting with Nutrition Facts information. If a food contains more than a few hundred milligrams of sodium per serving, chances are your daily sodium intake will exceed recommended levels. The Percent Daily Value can also serve as a clue. If a product contains more than 20 percent Daily Value for sodium, then that food product meets one-fifth of your sodium recommendation for the day. And if you double up on the suggested portion size, do the math and see how much sodium the food provides.

So skip the salt mine of processed foods and dig in to simple, whole foods stoked with natural flavor.

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