Food Industry Accused of "Salt Assault" on America

CSPI Says Steep Sodium Reductions Achievable for Many Brands


Most foods sold in supermarkets and restaurants are too high in salt. But a new study* by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) finds that some manufacturers are recklessly loading up their products with two, three, or even four times as much salt as their competitors within a food category. The dramatic differences in sodium from brand to brand are proof positive that many companies could easily achieve significant reductions without sacrificing taste, according to CSPI.

“Some brands of processed foods have sodium levels that are off the charts compared with other brands in the same category,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Excess sodium in the diet causes tens of thousands of preventable heart attacks and strokes each year. This salt assault is probably good for funeral directors and coffin makers, but it is a disaster for shoppers and restaurant patrons.”

CSPI analyzed the labels of more than 500 food items in 20 categories and ranked them according to sodium content. For each product, CSPI calculated how much more sodium it had than the product with the least sodium in the category. For instance, among brands of diced canned tomatoes, Hunt’s Original has almost twice as much sodium (310 milligrams per 100 grams of product) as Contadina Roma Style (160 mg per 100 g). But you can’t count on one brand being consistently lower or higher, says CSPI. Curiously, Contadina Roma Style tomato paste has more than three times as much sodium (910 mg per 100 g) as Hunt’s (270 mg per 100 g).

Nor did other potential trends hold up: CSPI found that among supermarket brands, natural-foods brands, or national name brands, any could be highest or lowest in a given category. General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios has almost three times as much sodium as Barbara’s Honey Nut O’s (700 vs. 250 mg per 100 g). On the other hand, natural-food brand Hains Rich All Natural crackers have almost 50 percent more than the similar original Ritz crackers (1,233 vs. 844 mg per 100g).

What CSPI found at the meat counter may be particularly surprising to consumers. While fresh poultry and pork are naturally low in sodium, much frozen or processed poultry and pork is marinated, “enhanced,” or otherwise processed in a sodium-rich solution. As a result, some brands of pork spareribs (Hormel, say) might have three-and-a-half times as much sodium as what USDA says spareribs naturally have (290 mg vs. 80 mg per 100 g); a packaged pork loin roast (Tyson) may have more than five times as much sodium as what unprocessed pork loin naturally has. One brand of frozen turkey breast (Marval Prime Young) has almost nine times as much as a frozen Purdue whole turkey (440 mg vs. 50 mg per 100 g). (CSPI also notes that with some of these so-called “enhanced” or processed products, the consumer is actually paying for extra water weight as well as unnecessary salt.)

In restaurants, consumers don’t have easy access to nutrition information, and sodium levels can vary just as unpredictably there as among packaged foods. Burger King French fries, for example, have almost three times as much sodium as McDonald’s fries (550 mg vs. 190 mg per 100g). Pizza Hut’s thin-crust cheese pizza has nearly twice as much sodium as Little Caesar’s (620 mg vs. 330 mg per 100 g).

“Because salt is in so many foods at such high levels, it is virtually impossible for people to follow health authorities’ advice to cut way back on sodium, particularly when packaged foods and restaurant foods make up such a big part of Americans’ diets,” Jacobson said. “Food companies should use less salt across the board, but especially in the products that have the most. Why not put consumers in the driver’s seat, and let them decide for themselves how much salt to add?”

According to CSPI, processed foods and restaurant foods contribute about 80 percent of the sodium in Americans’ diets. Only about 10 percent comes from salt added during cooking at home or added at the table. The remaining 10 percent is naturally occurring.

Americans now consume about 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day—about twice the recommended amount. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that young adults consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. People with hypertension, African Americans, and middle-aged and elderly people—almost half the population—are advised to consume no more than 1,500 mg per day.

“Most people are surprised to find out that so little of our dietary sodium comes from the salt shaker, and that there is so much sodium in foods that aren’t even considered salty, like bread or canned tomatoes,” Jacobson said. “Many people think of French fries as a salty food, but even a small McDonald’s cheeseburger has many times the sodium content of a small McDonald’s fries.”

CSPI is urging Congress to create a new Division of Sodium Reduction within the FDA that could encourage—through bully pulpit and regulation—food companies to use less salt. In the United Kingdom, where salt reduction has been a major priority for that country’s Food Standards Agency, some food products, such as Kraft’s Lunchables, have less sodium there than they do in the United States.

*2008 Updated Report 

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