Dietary sodium could rightfully be described as the stealth ingredient in food.
Indeed, as one Wall Street article related recently, few Americans are aware of how much sodium is consumed in the course of the day.
This lack of awareness is expressed in an especially sobering statistic: Some 90 percent of Americans consume sodium levels exceeding those of U.S. dietary guidelines.
Too much sodium, a key component of salt, can contribute to high blood pressure, which, among older Americans, is a major factor behind heart disease and other health problems.
Still, most Americans are scarcely aware of how much dietary sodium they consume in the course of the day, even from foods that don't taste especially salty, including packaged bread and chicken dishes.
Food items promoted as especially healthy often aren't in terms of their sodium content.
For example, that article reports that two teaspoons of a popular low-calorie salad dressing was chock-full of sodium. While only 15 calories, the portion contained 480 mg of sodium.
Current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend a limit of 1,500 mg for people with hypertension, anyone more than 40 years old and African-Americans, who are at greater risk of developing hypertension. These groups combined represent some 70 percent of the U.S. population, the article reports.
However, U.S. adults consume more than 3,400 mg of sodium on average. That's not even including the salt they use in cooking or from sprinklings from a shaker.
Earlier this year, Dr. Robert Keith, an Extension nutrition and health specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science, suggested several ways we can reduce our sodium intake.
By some estimates, for example, reducing sodium in processed foods and home cooking as well as table use could result in a 5 to 10 percent reduction in systolic pressure.
However, salt reduction is only part of the picture, says Keith. There are a series of proactive steps consumers can take too.
He cites potassium, widely available in fresh fruits and vegetables, as a major player in blood pressure reduction.
"If we can get people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables at least five times a day, we're getting less sodium and more potassium," Keith says.
"We've discovered that people with more potassium and relatively less sodium in their diets tend to have lower blood pressure, while people with high blood pressure tend to consume foods higher in sodium and lower in potassium."
Indeed, studies have shown that people who do not reduce their sodium intake can still reap some significant benefits with blood pressure merely by increasing their intake of potassium to levels greater than that of sodium.
One important rule of thumb for people trying to increase their potassium intake is to concentrate on fresh and frozen vegetables and to avoid canned vegetables, which tend to be high in sodium and low in potassium.
"A cup of fresh peas amounts to several hundred milligrams of potassium and almost no sodium at all," Keith says. "On the other hand, if you use canned peas, you'll get just the opposite: several hundred milligrams of sodium and very little potassium."
All in all, the recommendation for reducing sodium in the diet could be summed up this way: Light on the table salt, heavy on the fruits and vegetables, especially fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
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