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Sodium may be hiding in foods you’d not suspect

Eating too many salty foods can create all sorts of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. You expect excess sodium in fast food, theater popcorn and potato chips, but what about that sliced deli meat you just purchased at the store?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discovered many common — typically processed — foods are packed with excess sodium. That’s why the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) is increasing awareness of sodium and the “Salty Six” — popular foods that may increase your risk for health complications.

Sodium overload is a major health problem in the United States. The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day — more than twice the 1,500 milligrams recommended by the AHA/ASA. That’s in large part because of our food supply; more than 75% of our sodium consumption comes from processed and restaurant foods.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are some of the slyest sodium sources:

Breads and rolls. One slice of bread can have as much as 230 milligrams of sodium, 15% of the recommended amount. Have a sandwich and muffin in one day? It can add up quickly. Compare brands to see who is using less sodium.

Deli and cured meats. Even foods that would otherwise be considered healthy may have high levels of sodium. According to the U.S.D.A., a three-ounce serving of whole roasted turkey provides 87 milligrams of sodium; the same size serving of packaged, low-salt turkey offers 660 milligrams. Why? Because the packaged meat would spoil in days without an injection of sodium solution. A better option: Shop for low-sodium varieties. The best option: Cook your own turkey breast.

Pizza. One slice can contain up to 760 milligrams of sodium, depending on the toppings. And, really, who eats only one slice of pizza? A typical serving of two or three slices can send you way over the daily recommendation. To limit sodium intake, simply eat fewer slices, preferably topped with vegetables, less cheese and a reduced amount of cured or processed meats.

Poultry. Skipping the burger for an order of chicken nuggets? Just three ounces of frozen and breaded nuggets can add nearly 600 milligrams of sodium to your daily intake. The culprit: liquid salt solutions. While shopping, check labels to be sure you are selecting the lower sodium version and that there are no injected sodium solutions. When eating out, are your kids consuming more than three ounces of nuggets? (Quick check: It’s roughly the size of a deck of cards.)

Soup. One cup of store-bought, canned chicken noodle soup can have up to 940 milligrams of sodium. Try homemade soups where you can control the salt content. Either shop for lower sodium options that taste just as great, or make it fresh and enjoy two cups of homemade.

Sandwiches. Wedged in this category is everything from paninis to hamburgers. We already know that breads and cured meats are heavy in sodium. Put them together and you easily max out your daily sodium limit in one sitting. To limit salt, choose low-sodium cheeses and add toppings that offer nutritional advantages, such as lettuce, tomato and cucumbers.

What about sea salt?

Most consumers believe sea salt is a low-sodium alternative to table salt (61% of respondents in an April 2011 survey by the American Heart Association). But the facts show that sea salt and table salt both contain about 40 percent sodium.

Although sea salt has some health benefits not offered by table salt, it won’t lower your sodium content one bit. Gourmet chefs say they prefer it over table salt for its coarse, crunchy texture and stronger flavor. Manufacturers are using it in potato chips and other snacks because it’s “all natural” and not processed like table salt. And some health-conscious consumers choose it because it contains minerals such as magnesium.

But consuming more sea salt than you otherwise would because you think it has less sodium subsequently could place you at higher risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease or having a stroke.

How are they different?

Sea salt is obtained directly through the evaporation of seawater. It is usually not processed, or undergoes minimal processing, and therefore retains trace levels of minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and other nutrients.

Table salt, on the other hand, is mined from salt deposits and then processed to give it a fine texture so it’s easier to mix and use in recipes. Processing strips table salt of any minerals it may have contained, and additives are also usually incorporated to prevent clumping or caking.

Whichever option you choose, just remember that both contain the same amount of sodium and follow the advice of these heart-healthy advocates:

  • The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and certain groups should limit intake to 1,500 milligrams per day.

(The FDA doesn’t develop nutritional guidelines, but rather advocates the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a publication that the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services release every five years. The FDA tries to persuade food manufacturers to use less sodium in their products, but it does not regulate sodium levels in the U.S. food supply as of May 2012.)

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