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Licking salt: How to tell if your organic, natural, vegetarian food is too salty

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Can salty foods be healthy?

Trans fats are bad for you. So is sugar. And probably wheat and dairy, too. But salt wins the title of Food Foe 2010.

Proof: Mayor Bloomberg, the city’s nutritionist in chief, has asked restaurants and prepared-food manufacturers to cut salt by 20 percent over the next five years. (He must have taken a page from our Wellness Week at Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa.)

Bloomberg’s National Salt Reduction Initiative is using NYC, a city of eaters but not cooks, as its guinea pigs. Which makes sense since packaged foods and dining out are where we pick up a mountain of health-impairing sodium, something New York Magazine’s 11-restaurant breakdown of sodium levels clearly proves. (Why O why all the salt, David Chang, whose Momofuku Noodle Bar ramen yielded 3,440 mg—that’s 150 percent of the required daily allowance.)

Restaurants and packaged foods account for 80 percent of the salt in our diets, says Pritikin nutritionist James Kenney, whom we featured in January during our Wellness Week at that leading health center. If you threw away your saltshaker, Dr. Kenney told us, you would only decrease your sodium intake by 10 percent. So much for lowering your blood pressure and risk for heart disease that way.

Since I cook dinner most nights and don’t eat fast food, drink soda, or buy exotic blend vegetable chips (very often), I was about to table my vendetta against salt. Surely even my healthy prepared-food choices are, well, healthy?

Canned beans often have a hill of salt; this brand is actually pretty good

So today I had a look at the labels of the too-lazy-to-cook items in my cupboard. And to determine if my organic, natural, vegetarian choices were healthy in terms of salt content, I applied the 1:1 ratio that Kenney advised when reading nutritional facts on the label.

Share this tip at your next cocktail party, and I swear you will hold the attention and awe of half the people in the room: The sodium (in milligrams) per serving should be equal to or less than the number of calories per serving.

Here’s what my sodium witch hunt produced:

Muir Glen Organic Garden Vegetable Soup
(per serving)    (per serving)    (% of RDA)
Calories 80    Sodium 960mg 40% RDA

Gardenburger Portabella Veggie Burgers
Calories 100     Sodium 490mg 20% RDA

Westbrae Natural Vegetarian Organic Black Beans
Calories 100    Sodium 140mg 6% RDA

So with one cup of organic soup, I almost meet the Daily Recommended Allowance for salt. That’s according to 2,300 mg (1,500 mgs if you’re African American or over 40) recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. But my black beans are an almost perfect 1:1.

Westbrae Organic Black Beans: See how the calories per serving and the sodium per serving are nearly equal? That's the label-reading goal for salt in food.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my trips to the Flatbush Food Co-op and the healthy-food aisle aren’t shielding me from salt. (They certainly aren’t doing much for my wallet either.) But it is a shock to see that the recommended daily allowance for sodium (2,300) exceeds the recommended 2,000 calorie diet. There goes the basic 1:1 ratio. No wonder Dr. Kenney says more prescriptions are written for high-blood pressure, caused by salt consumption, than any other class of drugs.

So just to be sure I make some steps toward licking salt from my diet, I’ll be sticking with the 1,500 mg recommendation. Fortunately daily use of my aromatherapy salt scrubs are perfectly safe.

Have you cut back on salt from your diet? Tell us, here!