by Marion Nestle
Apr 26 2011

Should food labels say salt or sodium?

According to today’s Food Chemical News (which, unfortunately, requires a subscription to read), the FDA is arguing to make the international standard for food labels say sodium, not salt.

The U.S. delegation to the Codex Committee on Food Labeling will push for requiring the term “sodium” rather than “salt” on nutrition labels.

The European Union and its allies prefer “salt,” arguing that it is better understood by consumers.  But:

The United States is strongly opposed to removing “sodium” from the list of nutrients requiring disclosure. “We hope to achieve compromise and not remove sodium from the list,” said Schneeman. Asked about resolution of the dispute, she replied, “We still have our feelers out [to potential supporters]. Sodium is the nutrient, not salt.”

Maybe, but salt is what people eat.

I think “salt” makes more sense.  You?

  • Isn’t there a lot of sodium (which is the health issue) in a lot of other stuff, too? For instance, most leaveners are based on sodium in some way – and you couldn’t call baking powder or baking soda “salt.”

    If someone has been prescribed a low-sodium diet, they need to watch all these other forms of sodium as well, so in that instance, a label of “sodium” is more helpful.

  • As a dietitian working in nephrology, I am very familiar with this issue. I know the consumer thinks of the word salt to mean sodium and health professionals do too, calcium carbonate is a salt and yes we eat that too…

    I’ve heard the suggestion of ‘salt equivalents’ as well. 2400 mg is one tsp salt equivalent etc. We use teaching tools that have pictures of tsp of table salt or ones with little vials of table salt to help consumers visualize…but it does backfire a bit too.


  • I am with you! Sodium is confusing consumers.

  • Doc Mudd

    This silly dustup over nomenclature illustrates perfectly the appalling erosion of scientific credibility among pop ‘nutrition’ cultists.

    In point of fact, sodium is the nutrient. There is a nutritional requirement for sodium and recognizable symptoms of sodium deficiency or excess. There no nutritional requirement for “salt”, anymore than there is for lemons or cupcakes.

    Spinning “nutritional expertise” away from nutrients and nutritional science, toward recipe ingredients and popular superstition is cheap, tawdry whoring to sell books, “diets” and visual media. Nothing more.

    Shameful that anyone associated with any university, much less educators at NYU, should design to deceive a gullible public in the stead of educating. A populist tactic rather more in keeping with what we might expect from clueless government, particularly from romantics of the EU drama troup.

  • If people aren’t smart enough to know that sodium is salt, they’re probably not reading the nutrition label anyway.

  • Ashley

    I believe sodium should stay. I am a soon-to-be Registered Dietitain and the experience I have with patients/consumers/etc. is that they do not realize that it is excess SODIUM that is detrimental to their health. If they believe salt to be the “bad guy” then they are more likely to believe products like sea salt are good for them, when in fact sea salt also contains significant amounts of sodium. As another reader pointed out, sodium is also found in other components of food items especially those that are processed (such as many preservatives and shelf stabilizers). Using the term “salt” instead of the nutrient sodium will allow food companies to put labels on their packages such as “NO SALT” which can lead the consumer to believe it to contain no sodium.

  • For most people, they care about ‘salt’ because they care about the sodium content. So I think sodium should stay. After all, there are other salts on the market, and I think Americans would get even more confused if those salts were added into the salt content listing.

  • Lee Poe

    Sodium should stay, although it also would be good to know if there was any uranium or cadmium salt in my hot dogs.

  • Matt

    It has to be sodium, period. Cookies and muffins don’t have much “salt” but they usually have plenty of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda and baking powder). Same with some crackers, breads (though plenty are salty too), and more. One packet of Alka-Seltzer has 1 gram of sodium, or around half a day’s allotment.

    And don’t forget MSG, or sodium-based preservatives. And what about unprocessed foods? Will they stop listing how much sodium is in spinach, or milk, because there’s no “salt” added?

    If so, it’s bad. If not, then listing these kinds of sodium as “salt” is just lying to consumers, and that’s even worse. Making information easier to understand is a great goal, but calling sodium something other than “sodium” does not meet that goal.

    What’s next, the Salt Institute petitioning the FDA to rename their product “dehydrated sea water?”

  • Why should the consumer have to worry about the nutrient content of pre-packaged food in the first place?

    People purchase trust not debates about salt or sodium.

    If customers need advice about which foods or nutrients to trust more than others, to help them decide what is in their best interests, then someone, somewhere, is getting paid way too much for the service, or disservice, they provide to public health.

    Salt, by the way, until the food education system in schools catches up.

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  • Liv

    Sodium, primarily for the reasons already listed: sodium does not equal salt, and MSG, baking powder, etc. all have salt in them.

    Though ultimately as long as the amount of sodium is indicated on the “Nutrition Facts” label, I don’t care if they call it salt under “Ingredients”.

  • So funny that you should post this. I have recently been reading alot about sodium and salt and other electrolytes.

    I think that for the Nutrition Facts panel a total amount for ‘sodium’ should be given. Because that is the place where we look at weighted nutrient amounts in that particular food against an RDA. There is no RDA for ‘salt’. Yet foods without added ‘salt’ still contain ‘sodium’. There is an ‘Average Intake’ amount(less scientific term for RDA) set for ‘sodium’ by the Food and Nutrition board. The F&NB admits that there is insufficient science to establish an RDA for sodium. The F&NB also sets an AI for chloride and potassium as well, which are other electrolytes that work with sodium, as you well know. Since ‘salt is sodium-chloride, using the term ‘salt’ in a Nutrition Facts panel is not really accurate in my mind.

    However in ingredient lists I think food companies should use ‘salt’ because that is exactly what is being added. Salt is as I mentioned sodium chloride, and so by calling it ‘sodium’ in the ingredients listings you are leaving out the chloride. Chloride, as I mentioned before, also has a set AI from the Food and Nutrition Board.

    As I have been researching salt I have noticed that the amount of salt in our food is actually a really big deal. Perhaps on par with the amount of sugar in our foods when considering the health implications. Yet people really do not understand what salt is, what it does in our bodies and how it works with potassium. I found different cites within different government websites that all quoted different AI’s for sodium and potassium. Even our government can’t get straight how much we need to eat. And while they hem and haw more and more Americans go on medicine for hypertention.

  • I agree that sodium should stay, but there might be a simple solution. How about a breakdown of where the sodium comes from?

    Just break it down into salt, MSG, etc – similar to how fat is broken down “unsaturated, saturated, mono, and poly), or carbs are broken down (fiber, sugars, sugar alcohol).

    Why should this be so difficult?

  • KD

    I don’t think it makes a difference. I agree with the previous post that if people don’t realize that sodium and salt are related then they aren’t reading labels anyway.

    I teach my folks to watch the % DV of sodium on the nutrition facts panel (more than 20% is high, less than 5% is low). That should capture the sodium in a variety of ingredients and is easy for consumers to follow.

  • Sheila

    If we are to advise patients to consume a specific level of sodium, please label the food with sodium quantity. Many of my patients do not understand that sodium comes from a variety of ingredients in processed food, and many do not have the math skills to calculate how much sodium comes from salt plus how much sodium comes from other sources in each processed food. One simple target name and number on the label, please.

  • ETaddison

    This all assumes, of course, that watching ‘sodium’ or ‘salt’ has any appreciable affect on health.

    The data on that is pretty iffy, conflicting, and ambiguous.

    But it makes for a good ‘look what we’re doing’ campaign, though.

  • Doc Mudd

    Valid point relative to causation; much ado about pure conjecture.

    That’s “food politics”, no?

  • Michael Bulger

    The Institute of Medicine, the National Academies, and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control all support reducing “sodium” consumption in the United States.

    For these major and leading bodies of science and medicine, the link between sodium, high blood pressure, and death and disease in our country is quite clear.

    According to the National Academies, “…studies connecting high intakes of sodium to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, and other debilitating and deadly conditions show that salt is safe only up to a certain amount.”

    In a report requested by Congress, and sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; U.S. Food and Drug Administration; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, IOM acknowledges the connection and recommends that the food industry lower sodium contents in foods.

    Anyone concerned about the data being “iffy, conflicting, and ambiguous” would do well to reference this report.

    The CDC’s website might also be helpful and easy to understand:

    The nice thing about NAS and IOM, is that unlike the Salt Institute, they are not openly invested in the business of selling the product under scrutiny.

  • Doc Mudd

    Yep, studies indicating correlation, not causation. Recommendations based upon conjecture of causation.

    Making a small incremental change in dietary sodium intake will prevent/cure any or all of the duke’s mixture of “debilitating and deadly” diseases you’ve tossed into the scary mix? Don’t think so.

    Causation, direct causation is what we’re looking for to validate solid nutritional recommendations. Otherwise, everything will kill ya…if that’s the scaremongering headline that sells books.

  • Michael Bulger

    I didn’t notice any books for sale at the CDC’s website. I’ve done my best to not engage the troll called “Mudd”. (When confronted, it becomes vulgar, erratic, and abusive). I’ll move on after providing the following observations.

    The fact that sodium intake causes increased blood pressure which increases heart disease and stroke across populations is widely understood among dedicated health professionals. “Mudd” seems to side more with WAPF, an organization “Mudd” usually opposes vehemently.

    From the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s 2010 report (an entirely free publication available through the USDA):

    “The health consequences of excessive sodium and insufficient potassium are substantial and include increased levels of blood pressure and its consequences (heart disease and stroke).”

    From the same report: “A strong body of evidence has documented that in adults, as sodium intake decreases, so does blood pressure.”

    Here is a link to the .pdf for the DGAC section that deals directly with sodium:

    It’s interesting that the science showing the link between blood pressure (and therefore disease) and sodium intake is so well established that researchers have generally moved on to studying “the effects of public health interventions in economically developing countries or the effects of sodium reduction on other variables”.

    It is accepted that sodium intake influences blood pressure significantly. It is also understood that high blood pressure is a major cause of death and disease around the globe.

    Perhaps, “Mudd” and WAPF would be better off taking on the connection between high blood pressure and adverse health outcomes. Of course, that issue also seems to be firmly established as fact.

  • D. R. Martin
  • Doc Mudd

    What does Mike Bulger find so “vulgar, erratic and abusive” about good science? Many of us consider good science fascinating, a thing of rare beauty. A recent example:

    The distinction between correlation and causation is fundamental to formulating valid curative recommendations. A mistake, however well intentioned, yields nutritional/medical recommendations (and ancillary sales of books, etc.) that amount to little more than embarrasing quackery. In the hands of zealots these misquided ’causes’ are serviceable weapons against political adversaries, as we too often witness in the field of pop-nutrition.

    Michael claims to be a masters candidate at university – if so, he desperately needs to seek tutoring from a competent statistician/epidemiologist if he intends eventually to burden us with his biased opinions at any professional level.

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  • Michael Bulger

    For a moment, I thought “Mudd” would get through an entire reply to me without attacking me personally. I have bore an innumerable amount of downright wacky abuse from this poster on

    I find it amusing that “Mudd” fished for a 13 year old meta-analysis. More interesting is that a reading of this study beyond the abstract and through the conclusions finds the authors stating: “In summary, the present meta-analysis shows that the effect of reduced sodium intake on BP evaluated on the basis of randomized studies has been consistent since 1985. A mean daily sodium reduction of 160 mmol/24 h for 7 days decreases BP by 1.2/0.3 mm Hg in normotensive persons.”

    So, even over a decade ago, Mudd’s studies don’t support Mudd’s statements.

    When dealing with the Salt Institute and their scientific references, it is important to pay attention to the sodium intake levels in the studies. They like to quote studies that examine salt deprivation and extremely low levels of sodium. They then try to pass the idea that reductions in salt intake are dangerous.

    The fact remains that the average American diet contains far more sodium then is healthy. Everyone needs salt, but most people in the US need far less than they are consuming.

    So, who is “Mudd”? This entity seems to be constantly prowling the Internet. “Mudd” is tirelessly ready to distract, demean or offer baseless claims under the auspices of a scientific community that soundly disagrees with “Mudd”.

    Should we even care? I tend not to, as long as “Mudd” keeps pitching forth bogus talking points and personal attacks.

    One thing seems certain. “Mudd” will be there to anonymously bemuse those of us who take these matters seriously. At least for a little while longer…

  • Doc Mudd

    Wow! So you’ve discovered direct causation of your stated syndrome; “high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, and other debilitating and deadly conditions” due to salt intake – uh, I suppose we’ll have to accept your word on it. And incrementally reducing salt intake will be curative, then?

    Radicle discovery, man! Could be a Nobel Prize in the offing…or maybe not.

  • Lee Poe

    @Michael Bulger: Thank you for the many links in your posts on this subject. I find them very useful, especially as someone recently diagnosed with hypertension. I am pleased to say that simply by reducing one variable, sodium chloride, in my diet I can control my blood pressure. Totally anecdotal, of course, but in line with all credible science on this subject as well as the daily clinical experience of thousands of doctors.

    I reiterate my support for keeping sodium levels clearly listed on food labels.

  • Michael Bulger

    You’re welcome. I wish you the best of health in the future, Lee.

  • We should either call sodium chloride “salt” because consumers understand what this salt is. If we want to use its elemental name on food labels we should say “sodium ions” or “sodium chloride.”

    “Sodium” refers to the isolated element sodium which is a highly reactive metal. “Sodium” is not in our diet, whereas “sodium ions” are essential for life.

    Perhaps we could compromise and call salt “dietary sodium.”

  • Jessica

    I agree with keeping sodium, for the reasons stated by others that are very convincing, most notably that sodium comes from more sources than mere “salt”.