The Importance of Reading Labels

By Joel Fuhrman, M.D.

Read the Nutrition Facts label on the back of the can or package before you purchase a processed food. It is easy to see if it has too much sodium. Since the labels are based on serving size, if a serving of a particular product contains 100 calories, it should not have more than about 50 mg. of sodium (half the number of calories). If, instead, that product contains 200 mg of sodium, you know that 150 mg of sodium has been added to what was originally in the food. Don’t be misled by the manufacturer’s claims on the front of the package, such as “low sodium,” “reduced sodium,” or “light in sodium,” since products making these claims may still contain very high levels of sodium.

USDA Guidelines

The guidelines that must be followed if making sodium claims are:

  • “Sodium Free” - less than 5 mg sodium  
  • “Very Low Sodium” - 35 mg or less of sodium  
  • “Low Sodium” - 140 mg or less of sodium  
  • “Reduced Sodium” - at least 25% less than the regular product  
  • “Light in Sodium” - at least 50% less than the regular product

As you can see, these guidelines are not very helpful, especially in instances where the caloric content of the portion size is low. For example, a product whose serving size contains 100 calories can claim it is “low sodium” and still have 140 mg of sodium—which is almost triple the amount of sodium found in natural foods. In a low-calorie food, 140 mg of sodium might represent more than 10 times the amount of sodium found in the natural product. Still, the product can be labeled “low sodium.”

As I mention in the accompanying article (Salting Away Our Future), I suggest that you not add more than 200-300 mg of sodium to your diet over and above what is in natural foods. Using this guideline, you still can have one serving of something each day that has some sodium added to it, but all other foods should have only the sodium contained in the food itself.

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