– Sodium, Spice, and Everything Nice

Sodium, Spice, and Everything Nice

Sodium (like calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and potassium) is an electrolyte, meaning it creates an electrically-charged ion when it dissolves in our blood. Our bodies need electrolytes to facilitate nerve impulses and regulate body functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, brain activity, and blood pressure. Sodium helps maintain the fluid balance in and around cells (including the volume of fluid in the blood) and helps regulate nerve and muscle function.

High sodium levels in your blood can affect your fluid balance and contribute to high blood pressure. Too much sodium can interfere with the activity of your nerve cells and the muscles of your heart and digestive tract. On the other hand, it is possible to become sodium deficient if you overexert yourself or sweat out excessive sodium. So, how much sodium do we need?

Where Do We Get Our Sodium?

Americans consume an average of more than 3,400 mg (milligrams) of sodium each day. However, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that Americans consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium each day as part of a healthy eating pattern.

  • Types of foods matter. More than 40% of the sodium we eat each day comes from just 10 types of foods, ranging from the #1 source – bread and rolls – to eggs and omelets, which are 10th on the list.
  • Sources of food matter. About 65% of our daily sodium intake comes from food bought from retail stores. The next time you stop by your local grocery, try to explore lower-sodium versions of your favorites! About 25% of our daily intake comes from foods made in restaurants, where it can be difficult to see how much sodium is in your meal.
  • Brands of food matter: Different brands of the same foods may have different sodium levels. For example, sodium in chicken noodle soup can vary by as much as 840 mg per serving.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top 10 sources of sodium in our diets include bread/rolls, pizza, sandwiches, soups, burritos, tacos, savory snacks, chicken, cheese, and eggs/omelets. People can make a key dietary change to help lower their sodium: eat more fresh vegetables and fruits, which are naturally high in potassium and low in sodium, and eat less bread, cheese, processed meat, and other high-sodium processed foods.

Ways to Cut Back on Sodium

  • Choose low sodium foods. Many salt-free or reduced salt products are available. When reading food labels, low sodium is defined as 140 mg of sodium per serving (see below).
  • Replace your salt shaker with a salt substitute. They are sometimes made from potassium, so be sure to read the label. If you are on a low potassium diet, please check with your doctor before using salt substitutes.
  • Be creative and season your foods with spices, herbs, lemon, garlic, ginger, vinegar, or pepper. 
  • Read ingredient labels to identify foods high in sodium. Items with 400 mg or more of sodium are high in sodium. High sodium food additives include salt, brine, or other items that mention sodium, such as monosodium glutamate.
  • Eat more home-cooked meals. Foods cooked from scratch are naturally lower in sodium than most instant and boxed mixes.
  • Take caution when taking medications that contain sodium such as Alka Seltzer and Bromo Seltzer.

Reading Labels

Use food labels and packaging to help you select the lowest sodium option. If you’re unable to buy low sodium versions, drain and rinse canned foods under running water to remove excess sodium. 

  • Choose foods with 140 mg sodium or less per serving. 
  • Avoid food with more than 300 mg of sodium per serving. 

You can also use the % Daily Value (% DV) of sodium on food labels to help you quickly compare brands or products.

  • Choose foods with 5% or less Daily Value sodium, as these are low in sodium. 
  • Avoid foods with 20% or higher Daily Value sodium, as these are high in sodium. 

Product packaging can help guide you, as well! 

  • Salt-free or sodium-free: less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving. 
  • Very low sodium: less than 35 milligrams of sodium per serving. 
  • Low sodium: less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving. 

Choose foods where sodium is listed near the end of the list. Be on the lookout for ingredients that contain sodium: saline, sodium benzoate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium chloride (salt), sodium nitrate, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). 

From the Dietitian

Store-bought soups can be loaded with sodium for preservation and flavor. More often, choose soups that have 400mg or less of sodium per serving. Below, you can find a few brands that make lower-sodium soups and are still packed with great flavor. 

  • Amy’s Light in Sodium Organic Chunky Tomato Bisque (280 mg per 1 cup)
  • Amy’s Low Sodium Split Pea Soup (310 mg per 1 cup)
  • Health Valley Organic Chicken and Rice Soup no salt added (85 mg per 1 cup)
  • Kettle and Fire Turmeric and Ginger Bone Broth Soup (490 mg per 1 cup serving)

Try out these low sodium homemade soup recipes:

Using Spices and Herbs for Flavor

– Sodium, Spice, and Everything Nice

How to Use and Store Dry Herbs

  • In a recipe, 1 tsp dried herbs equals 1 tbsp fresh. In general, use 1/4 – 1/2 of dried herbs per serving. 
  • To release flavor, dried herbs are best rehydrated. Add either at the beginning of cooking, or about 20 minutes before the end. 
  • Try mixing herbs with 1 tsp of oil and leaving for 10-15 minutes before using in dressings, marinades, or sauces.

When stored properly, dried herbs can last for a year. However, you should always look for a lack of color and smell for a strong scent. A lack of color and a lack of an aroma are both signs that your herbs have already lived their best lives and may not be able to be revived. You can also pinch your herbs. If they break easily, they have probably lost their oils and flavor entirely.

How to Store Fresh Herbs

After purchasing a bunch of fresh herbs, wash and dry them thoroughly to remove any sand or dirt. Wrap the stems in a damp paper towel and place them in a Ziploc bag. The moisture from the paper towel will preserve the freshness and lifespan of the leaves for a few extra days.

Check out these resources to see how to use, cook, and pair fresh herbs with food:

Ready for more nutrition tips and lifestyle recommendations? The YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »

Sources: Dietary Guidelines for America, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Food Network, CookSmarts


–Mattie Lefever, RDN, LDN

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