Too Much Salt in Your Food? Check the Sodium-to-Calorie Ratio

For the human body, salt is at the same time a necessary mineral and a deadly one. In ancient times, it was so coveted, that Roman soldiers received their pay in salt (the term “salary” from the latin for salt – “sal”).

Salt has been used for centuries as a natural preservative for meats and vegetables. That’s not the reason the food industry like to use it, though. Salt makes food taste better, is widely available and it is extremely cheap. It can help mask the subpar flavor of the main ingredients in a processed food.

The result is that we consume too much salt for our own good. The problematic component of salt is sodium. Too much sodium results in high blood pressure, heart attacks, kidney disease, and other maladies.

Current health recommendations are to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day if you are a healthy adult. For people over the age of 45, African Americans, and those suffering from high blood pressure, that value is 1,500 mg.

Unfortunately, the average consumption of sodium in the US is almost double what it should be – close to 4000 mg a day. Most of the salt in our diet comes from processed food – either packaged foods we buy at the supermarket, or meals served in restaurants and fast-food establishments.

An estimated 100,000 lives could be saved each year if Americans halved their sodium intake. But both the food industry and individuals are hooked on salt. People like salty food. Reduce the salt and food will not taste as good, which will lead people to buy a different brand. This is why food companies are not in a rush to halve the salt in their products, or reduce it by even 10 percent.

The good news is that gradually reducing the saltiness in common foods is a proven and effective way to decrease sodium consumption. Our taste buds can acclimate to small changes over time, until the bliss point for optimal “saltiness” of a food is much lower than at start.

In Finland, a country with very high sodium intake, the government has been working with the food industry since the 1970′s to gradually reduce sodium across the board, with positive results. Unfortunately, our FDA is often powerless in dealing with the food lobbies.

This means that we the people, as usual, need to fend for ourselves. The fastest way to reduce sodium consumption is to eat more home cooked meals. (A side benefit will be lower calories and less sugar consumed as well!).

The Sodium-to-Calorie Ratio

When buying groceries, you can quickly gauge if a product is too salty by comparing the sodium to calorie ratio. The logic is simple: if a standard 2000 calorie diet calls for 2300mg of sodium, that means that for each calorie, you should be getting 1.15mg of sodium on average. Round this to 1.0 mg of sodium per calorie.

If the sodium to calorie ratio is 1.0 or lower (the the value for sodium is less than or equal to the calorie count), the food is fine. If the value is 2.0 or higher, it is high in salt. That’s not necessarily bad if you are having a savory snack, but you should be minded to this ratio so you can check your consumption throughout the day. Aim for most of your foods to stay below a ratio of 1.0.

Example: A serving of Cheerios cereal has 140mg of sodium per 100 calorie serving. That’s a ratio of 1.4, higher than you would want.

Projected Effect of Dietary Salt Reductions on Future Cardiovascular Disease -  Bibbins-Domingo, Chertow, Coxson, Moran, Lightwood, Pletcher, Goldman – New England Journal of Medicine, 2/18/2010

Sodium in the Finnish diet: 20-year trends in urinary sodium excretion among the adult population -Laatikainen, Pietinen1, Valsta, Sundvall, Reinivuo, Tuomilehto – European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2/2006

  • Corey Rowland

    One thing I’ve learned through experience and personal research is that a lot of the time if someone is overweight, a large portion of the weight could actually be water retention from a high daily sodium intake. A little bit of salt can hold a lot of water in the body. Keeping the ratio at .5 or lower is totally doable and I think people would really feel the benefits of this.

    • Hameed

      Can you explain how salt does that: hold water?

      • Corey Rowland

        I’m no expert, but this explains in a very basic way: “Your body tries to maintain a sodium/water concentration outside cell walls that’s approximately the same as sea water. When you consume sodium, your body holds on to water to maintain the right ratio. Consuming 400 milligrams of sodium, the amount in a single gram of table salt, causes your body to retain an extra 4 cups of water, which equals roughly 2 pounds. Drinking more water flushes out the extra sodium, returning water levels to normal.”

        • michael

          It’s like hypertonic and hypotonic. Define the words. Deals with cell water intake and solution intake more solution the more you carry the more water you intake the cell fills and pushes out the solution and water. May not be the correct answer but it works in a familiar way.

  • Tibb

    For several years I’ve had such a huge salt problem..meaning I put it on everything I eat, and sometimes every bite. Over the past couple years I’ve really been paying more attention to the ups and downs of salt. I have cut back, but not like I should. I wish there were a healthier alternative. Salt really helps the taste of many foods, to me..

    • RaRa

      Are salt substitutes such as Mrs Dash a healthier alternative?

      • Morgan

        Mrs. Dash is an excellent choice! -Morgan, Registered Dietitian

        • Marinika Alterman

          Mrs. Dash isn’t bed only watch for ingredients in Mrs. Dash® Southwest Chipotle Seasoning Blend


          Spices (sweet chili pepper, chipotle chili
          pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, thyme, cumin, parsley, savory, marjoram, bay,
          basil, rosemary, mustard, coriander), garlic, onion, carrot, sugar, citric
          acid, orange peel, modified food starch, rice concentrate, lime juice solids, natural chipotle pepper flavor, natural
          smoke flavor

          This is the side which will explain what actually mean Natural

    • T wini

      There is a salt substitute which is potassium based at groceries that I find not too bad, but avoid if you have any type of kidney problems

    • Vince

      Opt for Pink Salt. 10x the benefits of pure salt and none of its downsides.

  • Mike

    I love this food IQ has gone thru the roof with this thing.Good job.

  • Lala

    Thank you for the simple formula ratio!! It helps a lot and is so easy to memorize. It is thanks to people who come up with these simple tricks that I am able to maintain a healthy lifestyle !!