Processed Foods and Sodium

By Sarah Samaan, Rosanne Rust, Cynthia Kleckner

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed and restaurant foods. Only a small amount comes from salting food or adding salt during cooking (which is why it’s okay to add a pinch in your cooking here and there).

Generally speaking, the more processed the food, the more likely it is to have a higher sodium content. Even with a quick glance at the following table, you can see that the farther a food gets from its natural state, the more sodium it has.

Comparing Sodium in Foods
Food No or Low Sodium Moderate Sodium High Sodium
Condiments and spices Herbs, spices, low-sodium mustard, and red pepper sauce Salted herb/spice blends, barbecue sauce, ketchup, steak sauce,
salad dressing, tomato sauce/purée, and Worcestershire
sauce
Seasoning salts, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, dried soup mixes,
and bouillon cubes
Grains Low-sodium breads and crackers, oatmeal (not instant), rice,
and pasta
Regular breads and rolls, dry cereals, muffins, instant hot
cereals (like oatmeal), pancakes, waffles, pastries, cakes, and
cookies
Canned spaghetti, refrigerator biscuit and cookie dough, boxed
mixes for pancakes and macaroni and cheese, boxed potatoes,
stuffing mixes, and salted crackers, chips, popcorn, and
pretzels
Fruits and vegetables Fresh fruit, fruit juices, fresh or frozen unsalted vegetables,
no-salt-added canned vegetables
Canned vegetables Pickles, olives, pickled vegetables, canned vegetable juice,
and frozen vegetables with sauces
Meats, eggs, beans, and nuts Fresh beef, pork, poultry, eggs, low-sodium canned tuna, and
unsalted nuts
Canned beans (rinsed), frozen “healthy” entrees (with
less than 500 mg of sodium), fresh fish, deli meats, peanut butter,
and low-sodium canned soups
Hot dogs, sausage, bacon, smoked meats, canned soups, frozen
dinners, packaged lunchmeats, raw poultry or pork products that are
injected with sodium solution, and canned tuna, clams, crab, and
salmon
Dairy Milk, sherbet, ice cream, and ricotta Buttermilk, yogurt, aged hard cheeses, feta cheese, Parmesan
cheese, cottage cheese, and pudding
Processed cheese (like American) and blue cheese

You can also find sodium tucked away in a variety of common foods:

  • Bottled salad dressings and tomato sauces: Making your own salad dressings and tomato sauces can help you cut back on your sodium intake.

  • Breads and cereals: Some varieties are higher than others in the sodium department, so compare labels before you buy. Note the sodium listed on the Nutrition Facts label and choose the varieties with the lesser amounts.

  • Canned foods: Canned goods, including beans and vegetables, are convenient because they have a long shelf life and because all you have to do is heat them up. Unfortunately, sodium is the reason their shelf life is so long. Look for no-salt-added canned foods and rinse all canned beans and vegetables before you eat them to help reduce their sodium content.

  • Cheesy foods, pizza, sausage, hot dogs, bacon, deli meats, ready-to-eat foods, canned soups, canned pasta, boxed dinner mixes, pouch recipe kits, and frozen meals: Yes, all these foods add convenience to dinnertime chaos, but they also have lots of sodium. Making more homemade foods can help you reduce your intake of these high-sodium culprits.

  • Condiments and sauces: Although they add zing to dishes, condiments and sauces can be surprisingly high in sodium. For instance, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce contains 1,800 milligrams of sodium. Use smaller amounts of condiments and sauces or look for low-sodium varieties to reduce the amount of salt you eat.

  • Flavoring packets that come with foods, such as quick-cooking rice dishes and other packaged “all-in-one” pasta dishes: If the packet is separate from the rice or pasta, use just half of it to flavor the dish and reduce the sodium. Better yet, go for plain rice and pasta and add your own fresh seasonings.

  • Frozen, processed chicken breasts: Salt is added as a preservative to many frozen chicken breasts. Check the label and buy fresh chicken breasts instead (to save money and time, you can always buy them in bulk and freeze the unused breasts for later use).

  • Rotisserie chicken: Store-bought rotisserie chicken is higher in sodium than fresh chicken. If you’re in a real pinch and don’t have time to roast your own chicken, go ahead and use the store-bought one, but try to choose lower-sodium sides to balance out the meal (think a tossed green salad or steamed frozen green beans tossed with olive oil and herbs).

    Removing the skin also cuts sodium, and if you’re going to use the chicken for shredding (as in soft tacos or a salad), you can also rinse it and pat dry.

  • Spice or herb blends: Spice blends often aren’t labeled with the word salt but have salt added anyway. Look for salt-free on the front of the package or read the ingredients list in search of salt.

When you’re trying to figure out whether something you’re about to eat is too sodium-heavy, keep in mind this general rule of thumb: The fresher the food, the lower the sodium content. Similarly, the more processed the food, the higher the sodium.