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What is salt?

container of salt knocked over

Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is a mineral that plays a vital role in our daily lives. It’s a commonly used ingredient in cooking and food preservation, and is present in many of the foods we eat. Salt has two components: sodium and chloride. Sodium is an essential nutrient that helps regulate fluid balance in the body and plays a role in nerve and muscle function. Chloride is important for maintaining the body's acid-base balance and is used in the production of digestive juices in the stomach.

While sodium is essential for our bodies to function properly, too much of it can be harmful. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the recommended maximum daily intake for a healthy adult is around 2,300 milligrams. This recommendation is even lower at 1,500 mg for people who are at-risk, including persons with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, African Americans, and individuals ages 51 and older. In reality, most people consume far more than that. The average American consumes more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, which can lead to health problems. 


How does sodium impact my health?

One of the most significant health impacts of excessive salt consumption is high blood pressure. When you take in too much, your body retains excess water to dilute it, which can increase blood volume and raise blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease.

Excessive intake can also lead to fluid retention, which can cause swelling in the legs, feet, and abdomen. This can be particularly problematic for people with liver disease that has progressed to cirrhosis as well as heart or kidney disease.f

Excessive salt consumption has also been linked to the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) by promoting the accumulation of fat in the liver. A 2019 study that followed over 35,000 people over eight years, found that greater salt intake significantly increased the risk of developing NAFLD in the future. Other studies have linked excessive salt intake with the development of liver fibrosis, or scarring of the liver. For example, a study that grouped participants into three levels of salt intake to compare the risk of developing advanced liver fibrosis discovered the risk was significantly greater for those in the higher intake groups.


How do I reduce my sodium intake? 

  • Choose lower-sodium foods or low-sodium versions of your favorites.
    Although it may take some time for your taste buds to adjust to a lower sodium diet, there are delicious options for very flavorful low-sodium meals. Once the adjustment to healthier dining is made, many people report they would not choose to go back to the highly processed, sodium-rich foods.
  • When buying prepared and prepackaged foods, read the labels.
    Watch for the words “soda” and “sodium” and the symbol “Na” on labels, which warn you that these products contain sodium compounds. Many canned and frozen food labels help the consumer by printing “low salt” or “low sodium” boldly on the packaging, but even with those descriptions it is still important to read the nutrition label for the actual sodium content. 
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
    When buying canned or frozen varieties, be sure to choose the no-salt added versions, and look for the choices without added sauces.
  • Use fruit and raw vegetables as snacks.
  • Select unsalted nuts or seeds, dried beans, peas and lentils.
  • Select unsalted or low-sodium fat-free broths, bouillons or soups.
  • Avoid adding salt and canned vegetables with added salt to homemade dishes.
  • Don’t use salt during cooking and remove the salt shaker from your table.
    Certain salt substitutes contain a large amount of potassium and very little sodium. They are not expensive and may be used freely by most people, except those with kidney disease. Talk with your healthcare professional about whether a salt substitute is right for you.
  • Don’t salt food before you taste it; enjoy the natural taste of food.
  • Learn to use herbs and spices to enhance the natural flavor of food.
    Ditch salt for healthier, delicious salt-free seasoning alternatives. Check out these infographics from Cook Smarts for inspiration. 

Cook Smarts Herbs Guide                         Cook Smarts Ultimate Guide Spices

How do I measure sodium in salt?

Sodium chloride ("salt") is approximately 40 percent sodium. It’s important to understand just how much sodium is in salt so you can take measures to control your intake. These amounts are approximate.

1/4 teaspoon salt = 575 mg sodium

1/2 teaspoon salt = 1,150 mg sodium

3/4 teaspoon salt = 1,725 mg sodium

1 teaspoon salt = 2,300 mg sodium


While salt is an essential nutrient, consuming too much of it can have a negative impact on our health. By being mindful of our sodium intake and making healthy food choices, we can support our bodies and organs in functioning properly and staying healthy. 


How can I learn more or get access to healthy foods? 

The Wellness League Search Tool helps you find free and low cost programs in your community to learn more about healthy eating or find a food pantry. On the search page, simply enter your zip code and the resource you’re looking to find like “nutrition education” or “food pantry”.