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Most foods in grocery stores exceed "healthy" levels of sodium

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Did you know that a food product has to meet specific nutrition criteria to be allowed to use the word "healthy" on its packaging? One criterion is the amount of sodium in the food. For most foods, the sodium level that qualifies as "healthy" is 480 mg sodium or less per serving. If the food is a meal or main dish, it can have up to 600 mg per serving.

people shopping in grocery storeA new study researched the foods sold in U.S. grocery stores to see how many of them met the "healthy" limit for sodium. The results weren't rosy - a large majority of the foods had too much sodium to be allowed to use the term "healthy." The survey looked at grocery store sales data from 2009, and it's important to note that some the sodium levels in some foods may have gotten lower (or higher) since then.

More than 70 percent of the pizza, pasta and meat dishes analyzed were over the “healthy” per-serving limit for sodium. Between 50 and 70 percent of cold cuts, soups and sandwiches were also above the limit. Other foods, like breads, fared better, but it's still important to remember that bread is a leading source of sodium in our diets. Bread isn't relatively high in sodium, but because we tend to eat a lot of it - toast at breakfast, a sandwich at lunch, and a roll with dinner, for example - the sodium adds up.

The findings show how it can be hard to eat healthy levels of sodium because so many foods have relatively high levels. Nearly 80% of sodium in the American diet is added to packaged and restaurant foods before we buy them. While we can add back a little salt at the table if we need to, salt that is pre-added to our food cannot be taken out. If we are to have more control over the sodium we eat, the foods we buy at stores and restaurants must be lower in sodium.

One of the best things you can do is compare food labels of similar foods and choose the one with the lowest amount of sodium. There can be a wide range of sodium in many similar foods (like salsa, pasta sauce, salad dressing, and bread), and in my opinion, the taste is often quite similar even though sodium can vary a lot. Here are more of our tips for reducing sodium.

Will you help the American Heart Association work with the food industry and policymakers to change our food supply so that we have more control over the sodium we eat?