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What Exactly Does It Mean When Something Says Low Sodium?

By Debbie Benson

When trying to follow a low sodium diet or even if you are just watching your daily sodium intake for a healthier lifestyle, you will often see the term "low sodium" or variations of it and may wonder what exactly does that mean?

Here are the definitions with some clarification as needed, to what these specific terms actually mean.

    Low sodium diet: is usually a recommended daily sodium intake of less than 2000mg (milligrams) or 2g (2 grams) of sodium per day.
    Of course, there are more severely restricted diet levels of 1800mg, 1500mg (most suggested), 1000mg, 500mg, even 100mg per day.

Most low sodium terms relate in two ways:

  1. A low sodium product or food remains low sodium no matter how much you consume. You don't need to really watch the amount you consume or the serving size. For example, black coffee or plain iced tea. You can consume as much as you want without concern about the sodium.
  2. A product or food which is considered low sodium in reference to the serving size. If you consume an amount larger than the suggested serving size, the serving might no longer be considered low sodium. This food consumed in larger amounts could even be considered high in sodium.

For example: A serving size of 1/2 cup of low sodium soup is 140mg sodium. However, your actual serving size is 1 cup of soup. Your count now is doubled at 280mg. What if you are really hungry and have a second bowl of soup? Now your are at 2 cups of soup and a count of 520mg. If this is all you are eating at this meal, this is would still just barely be considered to be a low sodium meal. However, if you eat anything else at this meal, it could easily jump and be a high sodium meal. Imagine that just by adding 2 slices of toast at 100mg to 200mg per each slice and 2 to 4 pats of salted butter or margarine at an additional 50mg to 100mg per each pat. Now look at your totals and you've easily consumed about half of your daily sodium allowance.

Here is a quick reference guide for the different low sodium terms:

  • Sodium free or salt free: Less than 5mg of sodium per serving size
  • Very low sodium: Less than 35mg of sodium per serving size
  • Low sodium: Less than 140mg of sodium per serving size
  • Reduced sodium: 25% lower in sodium than their regular product. Note: This could still be considered too high in sodium for a low sodium diet. Remember this product is reduced sodium not necessarily low sodium.
  • No salt added or Unsalted or Without added salt: Means just that, no salt is added or the product is made without the usual added salt, but still contains sodium that is natural to the food or product itself

A little more information: Both the FDA and the USDA have stated: If an individual food that has the claim "healthy" it must not exceed 480mg sodium per the referenced amount. "Meal type" products must not exceed 600mg of sodium per labeled serving size.

Tip: Lower in fat you will notice usually means higher in sodium. This is especially true regarding processed foods. Don't let let the term heart healthy fool you. For example: A low-fat frozen dinner will generally be two or three times higher in sodium than the regular frozen dinner.

Note: All fresh fruits and fresh vegetables are considered to be low in sodium per serving size which is usually 1/2 cup or 1 cup of greens. Even fresh celery, which many folks will avoid, because they think it is high in sodium, has only about 81 mg of sodium per 1 cup chopped and has 3 times as much potassium and is 90-95% water. This is why it is so highly praised in so many high blood pressure diets and touted for helping to lower blood pressure naturally.

Tip:  Celery is listed as one of the World's healthiest foods, and should be eaten within 7 days of purchasing it. After 5 to 7 days, most of the antioxidants vanish. Also note that the stronger flavonoids are available when celery is freshly chopped rather than chopped and stored. So chop it as you need it for the most benefits.  

Make sure you read and understand the serving sizes, printed on the nutritional labels of the products. Many times to be listed as a low sodium product the serving size is almost ridiculously small. Let's say 1 cookie per serving. Who eats just 1 cookie? It might be possible but not likely for most of us.

Understanding these terms and using their guidelines correctly, will definitely be of help to you. This information will not only help you make better decisions when reading labels and shopping for products. It will also allow you to make better choices for balanced low sodium meals and snacks. Overall, this will help you learn about and keep track of your daily sodium intake, while better understanding your totals, and making it much easier to follow a low sodium diet.


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