Vegetables: A Salty Menace?

We’ve written before about the growing effort of governments to reduce dietary salt intake in the hopes of lessening risks for stroke, heart disease, and renal disease.

A new Centers for Disease Control report claims that “a population-wide reduction in sodium of 1,200 mg/day would reduce the annual number of new cases of coronary heart disease by 60,000-120,000 cases and stroke by 32,000-66,000 cases.”

The CDC report cites the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, which recommends that people consume “less than 2,300 mg (approximately 1 tsp of salt) of sodium per day.” Also: “Choose and prepare foods with little salt. At the same time, consume potassium-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables.”

These USDA guidelines suggest that some people — “individuals with hypertension, blacks, and middle-aged and older adults” — consume even less salt, just 1,500 mg a day. (If you want more on the blacks-and-salt story, see here, here, and here.) According to the CDC, these groups make up “nearly 70% of the U.S. adult population.”

So how many people successfully stick to these guidelines?

[O]nly 5.5% of adults in the =?1,500 mg/day group, and only 18.8% of all other adults consumed <2,300 mg/day. Overall, 9.6% of all adults met their applicable recommended limit.

The CDC report also includes data from a sample of nearly 4,000 adults that shows where salt comes from in a diet — i.e., the sodium levels derived from the various food categories. The three major sources are:

  1. Grains (1,288 mg/day)
  2. Meat, poultry, fish, mixtures (994 mg/day)
  3. Vegetables (431 mg/day)

(The rest of the list: milk products (280 mg); fats, oils, and salad dressings (141 mg); sugars, sweets, and beverages (124 mg); legumes, nuts, and seeds (108 mg); eggs (96 mg); and fruits (5 mg).)

I was a little surprised to see grains topping the list and a lot surprised to see vegetables at No. 3. How could this be? Do people really consume that many vegetables? And are they really so salty?

The answer lies in a key metric in the table: daily sodium density (mg/1,000 kcal):

  1. Grains: 1,744
  2. Meat, poultry, fish, mixtures: 2,554
  3. Vegetables: 3,451

But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Within the vegetable category is one super-salty sub-category with a sodium density of 9,165 mg per 1,000 kcal, which is more than triple the next-saltiest sub-category (ham, bacon, sausages, and lunchmeats) on the CDC’s list. What is this salty menace?

Soup and sauces.

(Similarly, if you dig into the grain category, you find the bulk of the salty damage isn’t done by what most people might think of when they think of “grains,” but rather foods that have “a grain product as a main ingredient, such as burritos, tacos, pizza, egg rolls, quiche, spaghetti with sauce, rice and pasta mixtures; and frozen meals in which the main course is a grain mixture.”)

So the moral of the story is an obvious and oft-told one: processed foods have a ton of hidden salt. But the more important story is that, in our rush to push people toward healthier diets with lots of vegetables, it’s worth remembering that sometimes a vegetable isn’t really just a vegetable. And you can bet that if someone — a government, a school or prison or hospital cafeteria, or whoever — is mandated to serve more vegetables, they might not do nearly as much good as the do-gooders hope.

TAGS: , ,

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Adam says:

    That’s a good point about the vagueness of the term “vegetable,” a culinary term with no meaning in botany. Policy inducements need to be narrower and tighter about what they’re targeting. If you want people to consume more fresh produce, or even simply food capable of spoiling within three days if it isn’t frozen, then specify that. Unfortunately, they usually make legislation as vague and broad as possible, leaving it to regulatory agencies to determine how enforcement will be carried out, and those regulatory agencies don’t have the same profile or public pressure and are able to be far more overt about how in-bed they are with industry trade associations because nobody is paying attention.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. AS says:

    The problem here seems to be categorization. Soups and sauces do not equal vegetables by any stretch in my opinion.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Eileen Wyatt says:

    How could tomato (pasta) sauce be classified other than as a vegetable? It’s not a grain, meat, or a dairy product; nor is it largely fat. Looks vegetal to me. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if vegetables were the dominant ingredient in most canned soups; certainly I pick enough celery out of mine. I have trouble believing someone buying a can of vegetable soup doesn’t expect it to provide vegetable-style nutrients.

    That said, canned soup is especially high in sodium, and that would certainly explain the numbers. Pickles also would logically fall under “vegetables” and are high in sodium.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. frankenduf says:

    technically, the important variable is K to Na ratio in the diet- low (no veggies, lots o mickey d’s) is worse than 1-to-1; is worse than high (lots o veggies, no mickey d’s)

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. David says:

    The simple fact of the matter is that processed, prepared foods are higher in sodium than those you prepare yourself. Back in the olden days, 30+ years ago, when people cooked for themselves, and when cooking meant more than reheating stuff from a box or a can, people ate food and not food products. Food products are a whole lot different than real food and what we need to do as a nation is support the idea of cooking meals from real food, not the crap that fills isle after isle in the supermarket.

    This of course would require all kinds of policy change at the governmental level in terms of farm subsidies and we know that big corn and other industries that supply the processed food industry will work hard to prevent that from happening.

    It also will require the change in attitudes and behaviors of millions of Americans and that is going to be hard to do as well. To understand that point just watch the shows that Jamie Oliver did on school lunches in the USA.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Pete says:

    The analysis would be better served splitting each category (grains, meats, vegetables) into fresh/whole vs. processed. The underlying issue that creates excessive sodium is processing.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Mantonat says:

    A tomato may be a vegetable by culinary standards, but tomato sauce is not a stand-in for a tomato. Nor is a serving of Rice-a-roni a stand-in for a whole grain, such as just plain old rice. If you tell people to eat a bunch of vegetables and then include processed products on the list, this is what you end up with.
    Many people claim that they don’t have the time or knowledge to make their own food at home and so resort to unbalanced processed foods and restaurant meals, but nothing could be easier or less time consuming than sticking a carrot in your mouth and chewing. If you like fat, add an avocado.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. T says:

    The second veggie sub-category with lots of sodium is “potato chips, fries…” Indeed if the mandate of eating more vegetables ends up being “eat a lot more fries and potato chips,” the mandate is doomed.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0