Are you wondering if your daily sodium intake matters? Learn about sodium’s role in a healthy diet and why a love affair with salt can break your heart.

First of all, is it salt or is it sodium? Sodium chloride is the chemical name for table salt. The words salt and sodium are not exactly the same, but are often used interchangeably. The nutrition facts panel of food packaging will say “sodium” instead of salt.

Most of us are eating more sodium than we need, even if we never pick up the salt shaker. More than 75 percent of the sodium we eat comes from packaged and restaurant foods. That can make it hard to control how much you eat, because it is already added to our food before we buy it. So how can we cut back? Below are some tips for lowering the sodium and salt you eat in the grocery store, cooking at home, or dining out.

The information below outlines strategies you may use at the store while shopping for food:

  • Choose packaged and prepared foods carefully. Compare labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium (per serving) you can find in your store. You might be surprised that different brands of the same food can have different sodium levels.
  • Pick fresh and frozen poultry that hasn’t been injected with a sodium solution. Check the fine print on the packaging for terms like “broth,” “saline” or “sodium solution.” Sodium levels in unseasoned fresh meats are around 100 milligrams (mg) or less per 4-ounce serving.
  • Choose condiments carefully. For example, soy sauce, bottled salad dressings, dips, ketchup, jarred salsas, capers, mustard, pickles, olives and relish can be sky-high in sodium. Look for a reduced or lower-sodium version.
  • Choose canned vegetables labeled “no salt added” and frozen vegetables without salty sauces. When you add these to a casserole, soup, or other mixed dish, there will be so many other ingredients involved that you won’t miss the salt.
  • Look for products with the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of an overall healthy dietary pattern. Heart-Check is not a low-sodium program and the Heart-Check mark is not necessarily a sign that a product is “low-sodium”, but it does mean that the food meets AHA’s sodium criteria to have the Heart-Check mark. You can eat foods with varying amounts of sodium and still achieve a balanced and heart-healthy diet. To learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program, visit www.heartcheck.org.

Here are more tips for preparing food:

  • Use onions, garlic, herbs, spices, citrus juices and vinegars in place of some or all of the salt to add flavor to foods.
  • Drain and rinse canned beans (like chickpeas, kidney beans, etc.) and vegetables – this can cut the sodium by up to 40 percent.
  • Combine lower-sodium versions of food with regular versions. If you don’t like the taste of lower-sodium foods right now, try combining them in equal parts with a regular version of the same food. You’ll get less salt and probably won’t notice much difference in taste. This works especially well for broths, soups, and tomato-based pasta sauces.
  • Cook pasta, rice, and hot cereal without salt. You’re likely going to add other flavorful ingredients to these foods, so you won’t miss the salt.
  • Cook by grilling, braising, roasting, searing, and sautéing to bring out the natural flavors in foods – that will reduce the need to add salt.
  • Incorporate foods with potassium, like sweet potatoes, potatoes, greens, tomatoes and lower-sodium tomato sauce, white beans, kidney beans, nonfat yogurt, oranges, bananas and cantaloupe. Potassium helps counter the effects of sodium and may help lower your blood pressure.

Now this is what you can do while ordering at a restaurant:

  • Specify how you want your food prepared. Ask for your dish to be made without extra salt.
  • Taste your food before adding salt. If you think it needs a boost of flavor, add freshly ground black pepper or a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime and test it again before adding salt. Lemon and pepper are especially good on fish, chicken, and vegetables.
  • Watch out for foods described using the words pickled, brined, barbecued, cured, smoked, broth, au jus, soy sauce, miso, or teriyaki sauce. These tend to be high in sodium. Foods that are steamed, baked, grilled, poached or roasted may have less sodium.
  • Control portion sizes. When you cut calories, you usually cut the sodium too. Ask if smaller portions are available or share the meal with a friend. Or, ask for a to-go box when you order and place half the meal in the box to eat later.
  • Ask about the sodium content of the menu items. A new law requires chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide nutrition information, including sodium content, to customers upon request. The new law took effect in December 2015.

Is my food going to taste bland with less salt?

It certainly doesn’t have to, especially when you use cooking techniques and other flavorful ingredients (noted in the tips above) to enhance your food. And as you take steps to reduce sodium gradually, you’ll start to appreciate foods for their true flavor.

Over time, your taste buds can adjust to prefer less salt. Studies have shown that when people are given a lower sodium diet for a period of time, they begin to prefer lower-sodium foods and the foods they used to enjoy taste too salty. Try it and see for yourself!

What about salt substitutes?

There are many salt substitutes on the market for you to try. Some of them replace some or all of the sodium with potassium. Most people can use these products freely; unless you have certain medical conditions (like kidney disease) are taking certain medications that have implications for how much potassium you should eat. Talk with your healthcare professional about whether a salt substitute is right for you.

Thanks, AHA and CDC for this important information.