Salt and Sodium

Even though the terms "salt" and "sodium" are sometimes used interchangeably, they are two different substances. The chemical name for salt, sodium chloride, reveals that sodium is in fact part of salt, and chloride is the second of the two elements. By weight, salt is about 40% sodium.

Sodium in the diet comes from several sources. Sodium is found naturally in food or may be added during processing, during cooking, or at the table.

Function of Sodium

Sodium plays a major role in the maintenance of blood volume and blood pressure. It is needed for nerve transmission and muscle contraction. However, as valuable as sodium is, the body needs very little. The National Academy of Sciences indicates that the recommended dietary allowances and adequate level for adults is between 1,200 – 1,500 mg of sodium daily. Many people consume three or more times this amount.

Sodium and High Blood Pressure

In some people, excess sodium in the diet contributes to high blood pressure, or hypertension. Because sodium attracts water, the volume of blood increases making the heart pump blood through the vessels.  High blood pressure puts an extra strain on the heart, which can lead to a heart attack, stroke or kidney failure. For this reason, a physician may advise a person with high blood pressure to decrease their sodium intake. However, only about a third of those individuals with high blood pressure find that their blood pressure is lowered by decreasing their sodium intake. There is no direct evidence to indicate that high levels of dietary sodium lead to high blood pressure.

Sodium Recommendations

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended limiting sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg each day.  The guidelines suggested a more restrictive intake of 1,500 mg per day for individuals over 51, who are black, or who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.  To put this into perspective, one teaspoon of salt contains slightly more than 2,300 mg of sodium.

Sources of Sodium

The average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium each day from a variety of sources.

Common Food Sources – The main sources of sodium in the diet comes from processed and prepared foods, including such items as bread, frozen and shelf-stable dinners and entrees, pizza, luncheon meats and bacon, cheese, soup, and fast foods.  Canned vegetables, smoked meat, sausage, luncheon meats, canned and processed fish, bouillon cubes, commercial salad dressing, condiments and sauces also tend to be high in sodium.

Many foods, such as dairy products, vegetables, meats, and seafood, naturally contain sodium.  The addition of salt during cooking or at the table is another significant source of sodium for many people.

Examples of the sodium content of specific foods are:



Sodium Content

Pickle, l dill

928 mg

Sauerkraut, l/2 cup

777 mg

Olives, 4 green

323 mg

Ham, 3 oz.

1114 mg

Frankfurter, l

639 mg

Bacon, 2 slices

274 mg

Corned Beef, 3 oz. canned

893 mg

Tuna, 3 oz. water pack, light meat

288 mg

Vegetable Soup, 1 cup canned

823 mg

Vegetable Soup, l cup dehydrated

1146 mg

Cheddar Cheese, l oz. regular

176 mg

Butter, l tablespoon regular

116 mg


Less Obvious Sources – These foods list any sodium containing compounds as one of the first few ingredients on the label. Read food labels to find these sources.  Be on the watch for ingredients such as monosodium glutamate (msg), a flavor enhancer; sodium bicarbonate, a leavening agent; sodium saccharin, an artificial sweetener; sodium nitrate, a curing agent; and sodium benzoate, a preservative. Also, look for the words "soda" and "brine" as well as sodium or salt.

Consult the Nutrition Facts label to see the amount of sodium from both natural and added ingredients.

Drinking Water – The sodium content of water varies considerably throughout the country. In most states, the state department of public health can supply information on the sodium content of public water supplies and provide help in getting water from individual wells or water supplies analyzed.

It is also important to remember that although there are different kinds of water softening systems, many use sodium as the softening agent.  The amount of sodium present in the water depends upon both the type of system and the hardness of the water. The softening system should be installed so that it bypasses the cold water faucet in the kitchen, but there may be an additional charge for installation.

Medications – Some over-the-counter drugs such as antacids, laxatives, and sleeping aids contain generous amounts of sodium. For example, Alka Seltzer Effervescent Antacid tablets contain 276 mg sodium per tablet and Instant Mix Metamucil contains 250 mg sodium per package. Read the labels carefully and ask your physician about using these drugs.

Ways to Lower Sodium Intake  

The following suggestions can help you to lower your sodium intake:

  • Decrease use of table salt and seasonings that are high in sodium (soy sauce, garlic salt, onion salt, etc.)
    • By gradually decreasing the amount of salt added to foods, you become accustomed to the new taste, and eventually decrease your desire for salt. First, stop salting foods at the table, and then start using less and less salt during cooking.
    • Use herbs and spices instead of salt.
    • Check with your physician before using low sodium salts or salt substitutes.  These substances might be harmful for some people, especially those with kidney damage.
  • Limit your intake of foods which are known to be high in sodium, unless otherwise stated on the label.


  • Avoid foods with less obvious sources of sodium.  Be sure to look at food labels.


  • Modify your recipes to include low sodium ingredients
    • Avoid recipes that contain large amounts of baking powder or baking soda, which are high in sodium.
    • Use low sodium or unsalted ingredients. as the following chart shows, these are much lower in sodium than regular ingredients.


Food Sodium Content
    regular, 1 tablespoon

116 mg

    unsalted, 1 tablespoon

2 mg

Canned tomatoes
    regular, 1 cup

390 mg

    low sodium, 1 cup

16 mg

    saltine, 1

35 mg

    low sodium, 1

1 mg


  • Use fresh or frozen vegetables, meats and fish instead of canned products.


Food Sodium Content
Green beans
    fresh, 1 cup

5 mg

    frozen, 1 cup

3 mg

    canned, 1 cup

307 mg

    fresh (broiled with butter), 3oz.

99 mg

    canned (pink), 3 oz.

443 mg


  • Do not automatically add salt to boiling water when cooking pasta, vegetables and cereals.


  • Remember, salt can be completely eliminated from any recipe except one containing yeast.


  • Think about the foods you order when eating out


    • Choose foods without sauces or gravies. If you do prefer a sauce, ask for it "on the side" so you can control the amount.
    • Individually prepared dishes (such as grilled meat, fish, or poultry) are easily cooked to order without added salt, at your request.
    • Avoid cooked vegetables since they may contain added salt.
    • Ask for a basic lettuce and tomato salad without dressing or with oil and vinegar.
    • Avoid salted breadsticks and crackers.
    • For dessert, choose fresh fruit. Baked goods may be high in sodium.
    • Avoid "fast food". As a rule, most of these foods are seasoned to the taste of the majority of the consumers and contain high levels of sodium.


“Reference to commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by University of Delaware Cooperative Extension or bias against those not mentioned.”


Author:           Sue Snider, Ph.D.

Food Safety and Nutrition Specialist                                                       8/12

Key Words:



Reducing sodium

Food preparation

Food selection

High blood pressure


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