Shocking findings about sodium that you need to know

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Sea salt on cloth and wooden plate in kitchen.

Sodium is a mineral that is found in salt.  Called the leading preventable risk factor for death world-wide, you might wonder whether we need sodium at all?  Despite all that we hear about sodium in the news, our bodies do need sodium to control blood pressure and to help with muscle and nerve function.

Adults (31y-50y) should aim to have less than 1500 mg/day (this is the amount of sodium found in 2/3 tsp of table salt). Children need even less sodium. The average Canadian gets in over twice this amount in sodium. Getting too much sodium in our diets.  And that’s a problem because too much sodium can lead to health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. So what’s so shocking?

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health looked at the sodium levels of over 9000 food items from 65 fast-food restaurants and 20 sit-down restaurants. The group of Canadian researchers found that the sodium levels in Canadian fast-food and sit-down restaurants is extremely high.  Here is a snap shot of their findings:

  • The average individual sit-down restaurant menu items had 1455 mg sodium per servings (or 97% of the Adequate Intake level), not including side dishes!
  • The food categories with an average sodium/serving above the 1500 mg of sodium?
    • Stir-fry entrees (2360 mg)
    • Sandwiches/wraps (1826 mg)
    • Ribs (1775 mg)
    • Pasta entrees with meal/seafood (1760 mg)
    • Tacos/burritos 1530 mg
    • Hamburgers 1517 mg.
  • 22% of sit down restaurant sandwiches/wraps, pasta entrees with meat/seafood and ribs exceeded the upper level of sodium (2300 mg).
  • Children’s menu items had an average 790 mg sodium/serving. The top contributors to sodium were tacos/burritos (1231 mg), pizza (1076 mg), chicken (1021 mg), chicken nuggets/strips (888 mg).


Many of the above numbers do not represent the sodium values for an entire meal, meaning that our sodium intake from foods eaten at a restaurant are likely to be even higher!


Where does sodium come from in our food? 

A small amount of sodium is naturally found in our foods.  A major source of sodium in our diets is sodium chloride, or common table salt.

We get sodium through adding table salt, flavoured salts, flavor enhancers and preservatives added during food processing.  In fact, 77% of dietary sodium is found in processed and restaurant foods (Scourboutakos et al 2013).   This is why there is so much attention on sodium – many Canadians eat out. It is estimated that ~25% of Canadians eat something prepared in a fast-food outlet; and an added 21% eat something made in a sit-down restaurant, cafeteria or other food venue.

Sodium adds flavor and helps preserve food.  It is found in processed meats, cheese, sauces, pickled foods, condiments and commercial pasta mixes. It is also found in foods that don’t necessarily taste salty – breads, cereals, some canned foods.


Sodium content of foods that might surprise you:

Taste is not always a good indicator of how “salty” something is. Have a look at the sodium content of the foods below and see what surprises you.


  • Canned/bottle tomato sauce – sodium can range between 585-721 mg in ½ cup.
  • Small dill pickle – 324-447 mg
  • Canned Stewed tomatoes – 298 mg in ½ cup

Grain products:

  • Breakfast cereal, dry, all kinds, 242-332 mg in 30 grams
  • Crackers, all varieties, salted – 192-335 mg in 30 grams
  • Bread, all types – 147 – 238 mg/slice


  • Cottage cheese (1% and 2%)788-970 mg/1 cup
  • Processed cheese slices 685-794 mg per 1.5 ounce
  • Cheddar and mozza cheese 208 – 482 mg/1.5 ounces


  • Luncheon/deli meat (pork, chicken), reduced sodium – 710 mg in 2.5 ounces.
  • Cooked and cured ham – 621 – 1125 mg per 2.5 ounces.
  • Rotisserie chicken 334 – 418 mg/2.5 ounces.
  • Smoked fish 572-764 mg in 2.5 ounces
  • Baked beans, canned 644 – 935 mg in ¾ cup

Salt (includes table salt, Kosher, sea salt and pickling salt)  = 1720 – 2373 mg in 1 tsp


  • Soy sauce 914 – 1038 mg/1 tbsp
  • Teriyaki sauce 700 mg/1 tbsp
  • Salsa 394-466 mg in ¼ cup.
  • Ketchup 334 – 358 mg in 2 tbsp

Snack foods:

  • Pretzels 860-870 mg in 50g
  • Popcorn, flavoured or plain microwave, 314 – 529 mg in 50 grams
  • Chips (potato, vegetable, tortillas), 421-502 mg in 50 grams.


Tips to lower sodium in your midlife

Sip the all-or-nothing approach to the foods – ie – I should never eat canned tomatoes, or, I should never eat soy sauce.  If the bulk of the foods you choose are higher in sodium, there are some simple substitutions you can make to lower your sodium intake.  Here are a few tips to get you started:

When shopping:

  • Choose whole foods most often: Add the following foods to you cart: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, milk, yogurt and soy beverages, unseasoned meats, fish and poultry, seafood and tofu, unsalted nuts and nut butters, legumes, eggs and low sodium canned fish.
  • Read your nutrition labels on your packaged foods. Foods that may not taste salty actually contribute to our sodium intake.  Choose nutrient-rich foods that are lower in sodium.
  • Try no-added salt and reduced sodium brands of foods.
  • Choose unsalted snack foods like air-popped popcorn. Expand your view on what counts as a snack. A crunchy apple with some nut butter can be very satisfying!

At home:

  • Be mindful of the recipes you routinely use in your cooking. There are lots of quick meal ideas, however, many of them use high-sodium ingredients like soups, condiments and canned products. If this sounds like you, substitute in lower sodium ingredients. Also, expand your recipe repertoire to include lower sodium ingredients.
  • Add less sodium to your cooking and to you food. Taste before you automatically salt your food at the table.
  • Boost flavor in your foods by adding fresh garlic, spices, reduced sodium broths, and flavoured vinegars (mmmm, hello Blue Door Oil and Vinegar!). Try this garlic lemon dipping sauce or crunchy peach salsa.
  • Serve condiments, dressings and sauces on the side. Try this garlicky green goddess salad dressing.

When eating out:

  • Ask for condiments, dressings and sauces on the side.
  • Taste before you salt your food.
  • Eat out less often.

Habit change in middle age

When you are over 40 years old, and think about your lifestyle in middle age, you have lots of habits – both good and bad. Habit change starts with awareness of where we are right now.  If you would like to do a self-assessment of the sodium in your diet and lifestyle, take this free quiz.

If you need help in enhancing your habits to lower the sodium in your diet (meal planning, grocery shopping, food preparation, cooking, snack planning), contact me!



1) Scourboutakos M, Abbe MRL.  Sodium Levels in Canaian Fast-food and Sit-Down Restaurants.  Canadian Journal of Public Health.  2013.  Volume 104(1): e2-e8.  Available from

2) Dietitians of Canada. Food Sources of Sodium. Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition. Available from

Kristyn Hall
Kristyn Hall
Kristyn Hall MSc, RD Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian Calgary, AB.

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