Your sodium intake is likely double the suggested amount. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

There’s simply no sweetening a simple fact: America has a salt problem.

Ninety percent of adults in the U.S. consume more than the recommended amount of sodium each day, with the average person consuming 3,400 milligrams a day, or well over double the generally recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams, according to the American Heart Association.

That’s just adults.

The kids are staying within their 1,500 milligram-a-day allotment, right?

Not a chance.

Even among the most adorable children, that beloved 1- to 3-year-old range, four of five kids consume 2,000 milligrams of salt each day on average. It’s even worse in the 4- to 5-year-old group, where just shy of 90 percent of kids consume 2,000 milligrams per day.

Clearly there’s a bit of a problem.

The American diet is full of flavor, thanks largely to sodium in its many forms—sea salt, kosher salt, table salt, MSG, sodium carbonate, sodium acetate, sodium erythorbate and so forth.

Consumed in excess, however, sodium can negatively impact our health. It can cause a rise in blood pressure and place added strain on our hearts, increasing the risk for heart disease or stroke.


The salt connection

The words “salt” and “sodium” aren’t equivalent, but they are most often used that way.

According to the FDA, salt (its chemical name is sodium chloride) “is a crystal-like compound that is abundant in nature and is used to flavor and preserve food. Sodium is one of the chemical elements found in salt.”

From whence it came

At one point or another, you’ve probably heard someone tell you to pitch the salt shaker. Because salt is not good when used in excess, right?

But here’s the thing: A mere 10 percent of the sodium we eat comes from home cooking or at the table. A slightly larger amount, 25 percent, comes from dining out.

A whopping 65 percent of the sodium in our diets can be traced to processed foods. The American Heart Association has a useful infographic, The Salty Six, which explains these sodium sources.

Did you know that for every 1,000 calories consumed at your typical dine-in restaurant—the amount often contained in a single meal or appetizer—you’re consuming, on average, about 2,090 milligrams of salt? It may surprise you to learn this is actually higher than many fast food restaurant meals.

This is not to say salt is without its advantages.

There’s no question that it helps to draw out the natural flavors in our food, and it helps open the pores of fruits and vegetables, allowing their natural juices to emerge and enhance a dish. This is an incredible property that can make a big difference, but only when salt is used properly.

Even as we enjoy a pinch of coarse salt when sautéing or sweating veggies, we must also look to Mother Nature for her alternative and sodium-free methods of flavoring.

Citrus, spices, herbs, wines, fresh ingredients and a growing array of vinegar blends are all healthier alternatives.

Start small

Believe it or not, you can take your cues from the food manufacturing industry.

Many companies have been gradually working to reduce the amount of sodium in our supermarket finds. The Consumer Goods Forum has reported that 3 in 4 companies surveyed have taken steps to reduce the amount of salt and sugar in more than 180,000 products in 2016. This is up from 84,000 products the year prior.

The New York City-led National Salt Reduction Initiative has inspired much of this effort, with an ultimate aim of reducing salt intake by about 20 percent. According to consumer research studies, most consumers won’t even notice when their meal has 20 percent less salt.

Have you noticed any difference in your soup, bread, snacks or cereal? The amounts are still high, but bit by bit the food industry is making a difference.

Beyond all of this, you can still take some careful steps to trim the salt from your diet:

  • Embrace the world of herbs and spices. By adding tougher, dried spices toward the beginning of a dish preparation—while sautéing an onion in oil, for example—you will ensure a greater flavor pop. Whenever possible, grind your own whole peppercorns, coriander or nutmeg. You will notice a beautiful burst of flavor. As an added bonus, your spices will last much longer. You can use your coffee grinder to make life easier.
  • Start with lower-sodium ingredients. Choose low-sodium or no-salt-added canned goods. Soak your own dried beans. Opt for a no-salt-added stock rather than a high-sodium broth or bouillon.
  • Cook with a coarse Kosher or sea salt. Sodium chloride, the chemical compound that makes up salt, contains an equal amount of sodium gram for gram—no matter what form it is found in. Comparing volume weights, however, there is a difference. One teaspoon of a coarse salt will contain nearly half that of a teaspoon of finely ground table salt, simply because of the larger grain size. That being said, not all kosher or sea salt is lower in sodium.
  • Add a splash of acidity. Rather than salting “to taste” and finishing your dish with salt alone, try exploring other options such as fresh citrus, vinegar or a handful of freshly chopped herbs.