The Role of Sodium in Your Food

A nutrition label from a food product with the Sodium highlighted.

Sodium levels may vary greatly in otherwise similar products.

Where Does Dietary Sodium Come From?

Although many people are quick to blame the salt shaker, only a small amount of dietary sodium is added during home cooking and at the table. The overwhelming major­ity of sodium consumed—more than 70%—comes from restaurant, prepackaged, and processed foods, including many products that don’t even taste salty. For consumers to make informed decisions about what they eat, it’s helpful to understand the role sodium plays in different foods.

Why Is Sodium Added to Processed Food?

Sodium plays many roles in our foods, mainly:

To Enhance Flavor

  • Adds a salty taste
  • Boosts flavor balance and can enhance the sweet­ness of sugary items
  • Masks “off notes,” such as bitterness and strange tastes, that can result from food processing
  • Makes some types of processed foods more palatable

To Preserve Freshness

  • Increases shelf life
  • Helps prevent growth of bacteria and other disease-causing agents

To Improve Texture and Appearance

  • Makes the product seem thicker or fuller
  • Enhances color and hue
  • Helps retain moisture in processed meat products as a trade-off for saturated fat
  • Stabilizes texture, allowing bread to rise and cheese to stick together
  • Prevents unwanted chemical changes to other ingre­dients in many baked items

Why Is Eating Too Much Sodium a Problem?

  • Our bodies require only a small amount of sodium each day to function normally. Eating too much sodium can lead to increased blood pressure, which can raise the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions.
  • Most adults in the United States exceed their recommended daily limit of sodium.
  • Reducing your sodium intake can help lower your blood pressure and improve the health of your heart.

Is All of This Sodium Necessary?

  • In many cases, no. For many products, sodium’s tech­nical functions can be accomplished with lower levels than are currently being used.
  • Many familiar products already contain lower amounts of sodium in other countries. This interna­tional variability indicates that these companies could readily introduce lower sodium versions of popular products in the United States.
  • Sodium levels in similar U.S. products vary greatly across—and even within—brands, indicating consum­ers’ willingness to buy less salty products.
  • Although many food manufacturers express concern about the altered taste of lower sodium products, salt is an acquired taste. Some research indicates that consumers—and their taste buds—can adapt to the taste of lower sodium foods.
  • Certain studies found that when a reduced-sodium version of a popular food is served, the typical consumer adds less than 20% of the removed sodium back. This behavior suggests that individuals are relatively comfortable with gradual reductions of sodium in products.
Sodium levels vary by country. The portion size of the UK slice of pizza is 132 grams (280 mg of sodium) versus the U.S. slice of pizza which is 172 grams (650 mg of sodium).

Browse more sodium reduction resources.