About 75% of the sodium in our diets comes from processed foods. It’s a regularly cited figure – but what exactly is a ‘processed’ food? Consumers might be surprised.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that bread is the top source of sodium in Americans’ diets. And you know what, it doesn’t matter if it’s a white pre-sliced loaf, or a crusty artisan roll, or a homemade wholegrain bap – bread is a processed food that’s pretty high in sodium. It accounts for about 7.4% of our average sodium intake.
In my view, nutrition guidelines that rule out certain foods on the basis of the number of ingredients, or draw a line between foods that are ‘processed’ and foods that are ‘unprocessed’, are far too simplistic. Some processed foods are bad for us. Some unprocessed foods are bad for us. (Undercooked kidney beans, for instance, can be toxic).
Much of our food supply is processed in one way or another – and that’s most often a good thing. Various processing methods protect us from foodborne illnesses and allow a year-round supply of nutritious foods, even in the most out-of-the-way corners of the country.
And cutting dietary sodium is not as easy as cutting back on salty snacks. (They do make the list though, coming in at number ten, and contributing an average 3.1% of our dietary sodium.)
There’s currently some doubt over whether established maximum sodium recommendations are valid for everyone, but according to current dietary advice, nine out of ten of us consume far more sodium than is considered healthy, and it is thought that most of us – although not all – would be better off eating less.
However, I think there’s a lack of understanding that much of the food we eat is processed in some way, whether that’s pasteurization for nuts or milk, or cleaning processes for fruits and vegetables. The processed foods that contribute 75% of our dietary sodium aren’t just cheeseburgers, pizza, and potato chips, although those are clear culprits. Even fresh poultry makes the CDC’s list of sodium bad guys.
Encouraging better choices
So let’s stop being sanctimonious about how whole, unprocessed foods could automatically solve the problem. Sure, switching out high-sodium foods for low-sodium ones would help – and industry could do more to encourage those choices – but it’s not a question of processing.
Every Saturday morning, for instance, I make a small loaf of bread, with a whopping five grams of salt – that’s about 2000mg of sodium. Using a mix of wholegrain flour, yeast, salt and water, I don’t think many people would consider this to be ‘processed food’. However, the salt’s in there not only for flavor, but also to improve the structure of the bread and crust texture, and to modulate the leavening action of the yeast.
This is an idea that industry understands well, and it needs to communicate effectively with regulatory agencies about what’s realistic in terms of reduction for specific food categories. The National Salt Reduction Initiative has been working with industry on this basis for a couple of years.
Of course, there are many very salty processed foods, including some snacks, soups, and sauces that don’t need sodium for technical purposes, and it would be great to see industry doing more to reduce sodium in these products, while also engaging consumers about the issue of sodium consumption.
There’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of debate still to have about what’s realistic for industry, as well as what’s healthy for the general population. But if anyone’s serious about reducing sodium consumption, a good first step would be to stop demonizing processed foods and to focus on sodium instead.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the US food industry. Prior to completing a masters degree in journalism from Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent several years working as a chef.