How much does one teaspoon of salt hold? More and more Americans will likely find out the hard way, now that federal officials want people to reduce their daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams, or about 1 teaspoon of salt.
The call comes in the new "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010." The guidelines, published in late January by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services, echo the government's 2005 recommendations on how much sodium should be consumed daily.
The guidelines call for daily sodium intake of less than 2,300 milligrams, but they recommend a 1,500-milligram limit for people 51 and older; African-Americans; and people with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. That's about half of the U.S. population.
The American Heart Association pegs 1,500 milligrams of sodium at just over half a teaspoon of salt. The association also recommends everyone limit sodium to no more than 1,500 milligrams daily.
Most Americans consume 3,000 to 3,600 milligrams daily, the association reports, noting that a person needs only about 200 milligrams a day.
Consuming too much sodium can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks, heart disease and strokes.
Sodium is primarily consumed as salt, but the shaker on the table is not the prime culprit.
"Salt added at the table and in cooking provides only a small proportion of the total sodium Americans consume," the U.S. guidelines state. "Most sodium comes from salt added during food processing. Many types of processed foods contribute to the high intake of sodium."
The feds estimate fewer than 15 percent of Americans consume less than the 2,300 milligram recommendation of sodium. "An immediate, deliberate reduction in the sodium content of foods in the marketplace is necessary," the report says.
20-somethings consume more sodium
Seniors born before 1946 consume the least amount of sodium, while the millennials, adults in their 20s, consume more sodium than any other generation, according to a report from The NPD Group, a market research company. All age groups are consuming more sodium than recommended in the federal government's dietary guidelines.
The report, "Sodium Concerns and Opportunities," says seniors, on average, consume 2,912 milligrams of sodium daily; older boomers, people born from 1946 to 1955, consume 3,199 milligrams daily.
The feds recommend sodium limits of 2,300 milligrams daily for the average person and 1,500 milligrams for people 51 and older.
Younger boomers, born between 1956 and 1964, consume 3,280 milligrams of sodium daily. The report predicts these people will become more concerned about sodium as they age and begin to have many of the same health issues as older age groups. Meanwhile, 20-somethings have the fewest health concerns, the report notes, and the most "relaxed" attitude toward sodium consumption, taking in 3,485 milligrams daily.
"The challenges in getting Americans closer to the guidelines are multifaceted, said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at NPD and author of the sodium report. "Salt is an important ingredient in making foods taste good. Simply removing sodium from foods and beverages will likely be met with consumer resistance."
Seifer said eating habits are difficult to change. "We tend to change our habits when there is a present need, such as a medical condition, as opposed to eating right for the long term. Offering popular foods and beverages with lower sodium, while maintaining their taste profiles, is a good start in shifting current sodium consumption behavior."
By the numbers
One teaspoon of table salt has 2,360 milligrams of sodium. Here is the sodium content in some other foods.
1 large Spanish
Source: Food product nutrition labels
Steps to take
10. Cook fresh. There can be extra salt in frozen, canned and processed foods.
9. Read the "Nutrition Facts" label on prepared foods like soup, breads and frozen meals. Compare sodium levels; choose the one with the lowest numbers. Look for "low salt" or "low sodium" labels.
8. Scan labels for the word "soda" (sodium bicarbonate or baking soda) or the symbol "Na" to see if the product contains sodium.
7. Drain and rinse canned foods, if possible, to remove some of the salt.
6. Use as little salt in cooking as possible, especially when using salty ingredients like cheese, olives, anchovies, mustard and soy sauce.
5. Fill the salt flavor "gap" when cooking by using black pepper or hot sauce, fresh or dried herbs, fresh lemon or lime juice, garlic, onions or ginger root.
4. Hide the salt shaker when eating.
3. Pay attention to serving sizes and the amount of sodium per serving, especially with prepared foods. Eating more means consuming more sodium
2. Ask for your meal to be prepared without salt when dining out.
1. Check the drugs you take; some have high amounts of sodium. Carefully read the labels on all over-the-counter drugs. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have any doubts.
Sources: Ellie Krieger, "A Pinch of Salt," Fine Cooking, Feb./March 2011; U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010"; American Heart Association