Using Food Labels to Cut Back on Salt

Sodium content on nutrition labels was confusing to some

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) If you're at risk of high blood pressure, you've likely heard these words from your doctor: "Watch your salt intake!" But how many Americans are effectively using food labels to help them cut back on salty foods?

A new study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers found that while many consumers reported looking for low-sodium items, fewer were checking nutrition labels. And some were confused about how to see how much salt a food item contains.

"Excess sodium intake can increase the risk of high blood pressure and subsequent cardiovascular diseases, the leading causes of death in the United States," explained the study authors, led by Jessica L. Levings, MS, RD, LD, of the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in Chamblee, GA.

Levings and team noted that past studies have found the average sodium intake in the US to be high. Using nutrition labels to opt for lower-sodium foods can reduce sodium intake, they said.

These researchers wanted to explore how adults in the US used and understood the sodium information on nutrition labels. To do so, they looked at a 2010 mail survey of 3,729 adults across the US.

Over half (57.9 percent) of patients said they bought foods that were labeled "low salt" or "low sodium." Just under half (46.8 percent) reported checking the sodium information on labels to help reduce salt intake.

However, nearly a fifth of the patients (19.3 percent) said they were confused about how to determine the sodium levels in foods.

Those who had a high school education or less were less likely than college graduates to check labels for sodium information and more likely to report being confused by the sodium information on labels.

Levings and team noted that food manufacturers can help meet the demand for low-sodium food and provide easy-to-see information on sodium levels.

"Registered dietitians, health care professionals, and public health professionals can help by educating their clients and patients about the major sources of sodium in our diets, the importance of using nutrition labels to choose low-sodium foods, and how to understand and use nutrition labels," Levings and team wrote.

In an interview with dailyRx News, Anjali Shah, board-certified health coach and author of health and lifestyle blog The Picky Eater, said opting for food items labeled "low sodium" when choosing prepared foods like broth, canned items or frozen foods is an easy way to control sodium in the diet.

"For all other prepared foods, look at the nutritional label and see what the sodium daily value percentage is," she said. "If it's more than 20% of your daily value of sodium — try to avoid eating it."

However, Shah said it's also a good idea to avoid food labels when possible.

"My number one tip would be to cook at home with fresh ingredients — that way you end up controlling the amount of sodium in your food," Shah said.

Shah explained that, typically, no more than 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt is necessary for an entire dish when cooking at home.

People with questions about how to read nutrition information and ideal sodium levels should reach out to a doctor.

This study was published online April 9 in the CDC's Preventing Chronic Disease. The authors disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
April 14, 2015
Last Updated:
April 20, 2015