Worldwide Dietary Sources Of Sodium

May 21, 2010

The majority of dietary sodium intake in the United States comes from processed foods, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and other international universities.

The majority of dietary sodium intake in the United States comes from processed foods, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and other international universities. Using data from the INTERMAP Study – a cross-sectional study of 4,680 individuals ages 40 to 59 years old – researchers were able to identify major food sources of sodium in both East Asian and Western population samples.

Processed foods top the list for sodium contribution in both the United States and the United Kingdom and are estimated to account for over 70% of sodium intake. In China, on the other hand, an estimated 76% of dietary sodium comes from salt added in home cooking. Consumers in Japan receive the majority of their dietary sodium (63%) from a combination of soy sauce, commercially processed fish and seafood, and preserved vegetables.

Looking more closely at U.S. findings, breads, grains and cereals accounted for 19.5% of sodium intake, 12% came from processed red meats, poultry and eggs, 11.7% came from seasonings, sauces and salad dressings, and 8.2% came from dairy products. 

“Our findings are similar to those of studies published in the '80s and early '90s showing that the excessive salt intake in modern diets comes from commercial food processing,” says study author Dr. Cheryl Anderson. “The individual consumer is not entirely in control of how much salt he or she eats. A lot of salt in the American diet comes from foods that consumers do not typically think of as salty such as breads, cereals, and grain products.”

Since only a small portion of sodium in foods occurs naturally, the majority is added by manufacturers – or by consumers at the table. Commercially processed foods and cured meats are major sources of dietary sodium for the U.S. and the UK. Commercially processed sauces and soups are the major contributors of sodium in Japan. Meanwhile, discretionary sodium (salt added to foods) is the main source in China. Average intake for all four countries examined was well over the current World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of less than 2,000 mg of sodium per day.

Researchers suggest that different approaches are needed to reduce sodium, depending on the country. For China, at home use of salt should be more limited. Increased access to refrigeration in rural China could also help reduce the amount of salt that is used for food preservation. For the U.S., UK and Japan, significant reductions must be made in the sodium content of commercially processed foods. 

Currently, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that most adults consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium (one teaspoon of salt) per day. For older adults and those with hypertension, the AHA recommends a daily sodium intake of less than 1,500 mg. Many manufacturers have been reformulating products so that the amount of sodium in foods is reduced gradually over time and can eventually meet these sodium intake targets. Federal requirements for sodium reduction could be next as the Institute of Medicine’s report on “Strategies to Reduce Population Sodium Intake” was released in April 2010 and recommends federal action. (See our article on Consumer Salt Perceptions.)

“Although educating individuals about sources of sodium is very important, it is important to note that even the most conscientious individual will find it very difficult to consume less than 1500 mg/day (the recommendation for 69% of Americans). Sodium is virtually ubiquitous in our current food supply and major changes need to be made to the sodium content of pre-packaged and restaurant foods,” adds Anderson.

This article is a preview of the May 24th issue of Food, Nutrition & Science. 

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