New Food Label Spotlight: Sodium Sense

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Your client just found out his blood pressure is high and started avoiding table salt, but is still on a steady diet of bacon, canned soup and frozen meals. What’s wrong with this picture? While it’s definitely important for him or her to reduce table salt, there are many other sources of sodium that come from prepared foods. The food label and FDA-approved health claims provide a roadmap for individuals to make better choices about their sodium intake. This second part of our nutrition facts label series will focus on sodium on the Nutrition Facts label.

For starters, salt raises blood pressure by increasing the amount of sodium in the bloodstream, which attracts more water and increases blood volume. This extra fluid increases stress on the heart and blood vessels and raises blood pressure. Over time, the pressure may do damage to arterial walls, ventricles and the kidneys.1

Clients have to understand the difference between salt and sodium. While table salt is made of both sodium and chloride, sodium is found naturally in some foods including meat, cheese and milk. Believe it or not, even beets and celery contain small amounts of natural sodium. Manufacturers use sodium not only as a flavor enhancer (i.e. monosodium glutamate) but also as a preservative to extend the shelf life of a product.1

Most consumers don't realize that processed foods account for about 75% of the sodium we consume. The worst offenders include commonly eaten foods like processed lunch meat including ham and bologna, canned soup, chili or stew, frozen meals and even bread. Hot dogs, bacon, sausage pickles, olives and processed cheese (including cottage cheese) also provide a hefty dose of sodium in your diet. Most popular restaurant meals contain over 800-2000 mg of sodium if you research places like McDonalds, Burger King, Panera Bread, Red Lobster, and many more. Our bodies physiologically only need 500 mg/day, but the recommended amount per day for individuals without high blood pressure is 2300 mg. Most consumers eat 3400 mg of sodium daily. For those suffering high blood pressure, the advice is to limit sodium to 1500 mg per day or less. This lower recommendation is also for individuals over the age of 50, African Americans and people suffering from high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. 2

By FDA labeling definition, a food can contain no more than 140 mg sodium per serving to be considered “low sodium”. This is roughly 6% of the Daily Value for sodium. But, less is better when it comes to sodium. The following terms on a label relate to sodium content: 3

  • Sodium-free – Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving and contains no sodium chloride
  • Very low sodium – 35 milligrams or less per serving
  • Low sodium – 140 milligrams or less per serving
  • Reduced (or less) sodium – At least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the usual sodium level
  • Light (for sodium-reduced products) – If the food is “low calorie” and “low fat” and sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving
  • Light in sodium – If sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving

In addition, food labels cannot claim a product is “healthy” if it has more than 480 mg of sodium per labeled serving (for individual foods) OR…Over 600 mg sodium per labeled serving for meals/main dishes, according to the US Food and Drug Administration and US Dept. of Agriculture. 3

To help your clients make sense out of sodium, advise them to eat less processed foods that are frozen, canned, or heavily processed.

  1. Choose fresh chicken, fish and lean beef over processed meats.
  2. Cook more meals at home and eat out less often.
  3. Look for canned vegetables packed without salt or choose plain frozen vegetables. Those with sauces tend to be higher in sodium.
  4. Read labels for sodium content. When looking for sodium on the food label, check the DV (Daily Value). Ideally, it should be 6% or less of calories in one serving. Encourage low-sodium or salt-free nuts and other snacks. We are salty enough!

Fun activity: bring all kinds of product packages to class and let them see the differences between high and low-sodium foods so they understand how food label literacy and attention makes a big difference in health!


  1. Catherine Leclercq, Pasquale Strazzullo. Adv Nutr. 2014 Mar; 5(2): 188–190.

Submitted by Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD

Download Handout: 5 Clues to Find Low-Sodium Foods

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