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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. Gary says:

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

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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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