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. Steve says:

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

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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  6. 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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    I developed atrial fib after knee replacement surgery. Blood presssure dropped.. I am now on Flecainide 50 mgs bid and Digoxin .125 qd. I have asthma and these drugs seem to be only ones I can take. Any other suggestions

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