High Sodium Levels Found in Surprising Places

Cecily O'Connor

A glass of V8 or a McDonald's Caesar salad with grilled chicken may seem like healthy alternatives, but they're on a new list of foods with surprisingly high levels of sodium.

Typical pancakes can have 500 mg of sodium per serving.

Sodium - which we consume through salt, baking powder and baking soda - is often found in foods consumers might not think to check, according to Consumer Reports, which found it is surprisingly easy to go over the recommended daily limit of 2,300 milligrams a day for the average adult. And the limit is just 1,500 mg for middle-aged and older adults.

With heart disease being the nation's biggest killer, a 50 percent reduction in daily sodium intake could save 150,000 lives a year, according to the American Medical Association. The good news is that salt is an acquired taste, so anyone prone to adding a pinch here or a dash there can reverse the habit by gradually cutting down.

But it's hard for consumers to know what they're getting, unless they read packages carefully. For example, low-fat foods such as baked potato chips can be higher in sodium than their full-fat counterparts because sodium is used to compensate for flavor. Consider that a portion of the baked version of Ruffles Potato Chips has 40 milligrams more sodium than the original.

High sodium levels may come as a surprise to many boomers who are watching their calories at holiday parties, and trying to make healthy decisions about the foods they eat to lower the risk of high blood pressure and other conditions.

Sodium surprises also present challenges for people charged with cooking for the holidays. The average American consumes up to 2,000 mg more than the recommended daily limit on holidays.

"Unfortunately, cutting back isn’t easy because of the high levels of sodium in the many processed and prepared foods that Americans eat on a regular basis," said Jamie Hirsh, associate health editor at Consumer Reports.

Surprising Suspects
Consumer Reports analyzed 37 supermarket staples and found large amounts of sodium in some foods that don’t necessarily taste salty.

For example, a cup of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran contains 350 milligrams of sodium, while a half-cup of Friendship 1% low-fat cottage cheese has 360 mg. A single Pepperidge Farm Whole Grain White Bagel has 440 mg. 

Consumer Reports also found that sodium lurks in foods that consumers may never think to check:

  • Four strands of Twizzlers Black Licorice Twists have 200 mg. 
  • Prego Heart Smart Traditional Italian Sauce contains 430 mg per half-cup.
  • Aunt Jemima Original Pancake and Waffle Mix yields 200 mg per pancake when prepared as directed.
  • Heart Healthy V8 vegetable juice has 480 mg in one cup.
  • McDonald’s Premium Caesar Salad with grilled chicken contains 890 mg - without dressing

At McDonald's, even fries have less sodium than the salad, with 350 mg in a large order.

Spoonful of Salt
The 2,300 mg limit means adults should get no more than one teaspoon of table salt a day. People with hypertension, those middle-aged and older, and African-Americans should aim for less than that - no more than 1,500 mg. But the average American ingests 2,900 to 4,300 mg daily. 

A high-sodium diet might increase a person’s risk of high blood pressure - and subsequent heart attack, kidney disease and stroke. Sodium also steps up the risk of asthma, kidney stones, osteoporosis and stomach cancer. 

Consumers might be getting sodium, even if “sodium chloride” is not listed as an ingredient, Hirsh said. It's important to check food labels because sodium is contained in disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, sodium caseinate, sodium benzoate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrite, and other combinations. Some of those ingredients are flavor enhancers; others are thickeners, preservatives or texture enhancers.  

Consumer Reports also advised consumers to do the following:

Shop for condiments with no salt added. That includes buying canned vegetables packed with less salt, and avoiding meats and poultry that have been marinated or injected with salty solutions.

Be a salt-conscious chef. Use herbs and spices, salt-free seasoning blends, citrus juice and flavored vinegars instead of salt.  Use sodium-free broth as a base for homemade soup.

Avoid sodium heavyweights. On this list is: soy sauce (1,160 mg per tablespoon), chicken bouillon (1,100 mg per packet) and frozen dinners (Stouffer’s Lasagna with Meat & Sauce, 930 mg per serving), as well as cured meats such as bacon, ham, and hot dogs; sardines and smoked salmon; and brined foods, such as pickles and olives.

Eat at home. You can easily consume a day’s worth of sodium in a single restaurant dish.

Check your meds. Some drugs contain sodium.