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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.