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.

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  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.

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  2. AS says:

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

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  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.

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  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)

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  9. Heather Aaronson says:

    Re: reply #3

    “How could tomato (pasta) sauce be classified other than as a vegetable?”

    Very easily, since a tomato is a fruit. So, despite Ronald Reagan’s saying otherwise, ketchup is NOT a vegetable.

    “Pickles also would logically fall under ‘vegetables’….”

    Cucumbers, from which pickles are made, are fruits, and related to watermelons.

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  10. jwg says:

    Even if you’re dealing with true vegatables, being largely water and fiber, they have very low calories which, it would seem, would largely explain a higher sodium densisity which is meaured in sodium/ kcal. ,

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  11. ted says:

    How good is the science on “recommended” salt levels? Word is the recommended alcohol limits (in the UK anyway) were just numbers plucked out the air.

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  12. Mordecai says:

    Really, Dubner? The point isn’t to get a significant amount of your calories from vegetables, but rather to eat them for nutrients, and get most of your calories from a lower sodium mg/kcal source.

    What’s up with the steady drumbeat of superficially serious regulatory second-guessing? I’m starting to wonder about your sincerity.

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  13. Gary says:

    Obviously, they need a category modifier for processed foods. Duh.

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  14. Steven says:

    When preparing a entree’ in culinary terms, your elements of the plate are: Protein, Veg, Starch, and Sauce.

    A sauce is not a vegetable and should not be counted as one. Sauces also may not even have a single vegetable in it at all.

    Soups may contain vegetables, but they’re not a vegetable in of itself either.

    Potatoes are a starch and should not be counted within vegetables.

    Corn, is a grain and probably should not be counted as a vegetable either.

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  15. ElvisInMiami says:

    Making homemade soup can result in much lower sodium content than canned soup. A crockpot, a bunch of vegetables, and some broth (not packaged) or real meat from a butcher makes a great meal in about 10 minutes of work

    I find it troublesome that we are defining processed foods in our definitions of grains and vegetables. Just reading labels at a grocery store points out a list of evils in just about every type of product (why does mustard need ‘spices’ and ‘flavors’?)

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  16. Heather says:

    I am not sure that this is wise. Salt is an important preservative that helps prevent botulism among other things. A bit over 50% of people who are hypertensive have salt-sensitive effects on their blood pressure, and about 1/4 of normal people have salt sensitive blood pressure. That ends up being a substantial number of people, yes, but not the majority of people. Perhaps people should find out if their blood pressure is salt-sensitive before they start restricting all salt in their diet.

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  17. Steve says:

    Huh??? Since when are “soups and sauces” vegetables?

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  18. Jonathan Katz says:

    At the end, this article comes to the point: don’t eat any processed foods. Vegetables contain very little sodium. Processors and restaurants add it. Don’t eat their products. Buy vegetables fresh or frozen (convenient but not as good as fresh, and the choices are limited). Beware of frozen peas, which (unlike other frozen vegetables) are usually salted, and avoid anything that comes with sauce or seasoning. Use spices and herbs instead, and cook without salt.

    Buy legumes (a good and very economical substitute for meat) dry, not canned. Most require a few hours of simmering (do it the previous night), but lentils and split peas cook in 40 minutes.

    It is not difficult to keep sodium intake under 200 mg per day, if you cook with ingredients, not processed products.

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  19. Ike Solem says:

    The levels of preservatives are regulated in processed food – not that it’s a good idea to eat them. Sodium benzoate, for example, is included at ~0.1% in foods that contain it – hence, a liter of soup contains a milliliter (1 cc) of sodium benzoate. While no sane person would knowingly eat a teaspoon of a benzoic acid derivative, since it kills microbes they’ve allowed it in food.

    If most of your food has preservatives in it (i.e. if it is typical processed food or soft drinks, engineered for long shelf life), then you could be ingesting say, 50 grams of chemical preservatives a month. The food industry says it is safe based on ancient studies done in the 1950s, but that’s not so very clear. In the end, compounds like benzoic acid (benzene + CO2 -> benzoic acid) have to be eliminated by the liver, and too much leads to toxic effects, like damage to mitochondria:

    This is probably quite a bit worse than a little too much salt – but for some reason, the food processing industry isn’t interested in doing modern biomedical research on any of this, and the FDA is cooperating with them – hence, some distrust of government and industry claims on the safety of preservatives in processed food is warranted.

    Food processors used to have fewer means of preserving food – salting, smoking, canning, and drying were about it. While there are plausible health risks associated with eating too much salty, smoked food, far more attention should be paid to the more modern chemical preservatives, which probably pose greater health risks.

    Start reading the fine print on the food packaging, in other words. If you find it’s all loaded up with preservatives, it’s probably a good idea to make some dietary changes – such as going back to unprocessed food as much as possible.

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  20. Hard to Swallow says:

    Trans fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, starch, sugar, salt, preservatives, colorings, flavorings, packaging…

    What’s next? Are we going to be told tomorrow that there is too much water in our food and that we need to get our nutrients in tablet form?

    Let people live a little. If 60,000 additional people want to eat their weight in salt and die of heart disease, I say we should let them. Dead people don’t demand costly medical attention, so why the fuss?

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  22. Travis says:

    How is this a reasonable measure?

    Sodium / kcal is obviously going to skew the sodium intake stats as vegetables are so much lower in caloric density than either meats / fats or carbs / sugars.

    Taking into account multiple other facts, like the fact that Americans need to reduce their Caloric, Fat and Sugar intake also, in general, doesn’t this make just that much more sense?

    Aside from that by ‘demonizing’ salt/vegetables you are ultimately just trading one risk for several. Reducing heart incidents by reducing sodium is great, but what about increasing their incidence by increasing fat intake? To add to that the many other health impacts of sugars (diabetes) etc.

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