What Sodium Labels Mean: A Guide to Decoding Sodium Labels

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Mark Poprocki)

In our beginners guide to low-sodium eating, we’ve tackled first steps and encouragements for going low-so, and we’ve talked about the difference between salt and sodium.

Today, let’s quickly recap the basics of sodium labeling. How to make sense of all those labels? What should you be looking for? Here’s a cheat sheet.

What Sodium Labels Mean: A Decoder

The good news is that today, as opposed to ten years ago, there are a lot more low-sodium products on the market that actually taste great. Including potato chips, fire roasted tomato sauces, pickles (yes, pickles!), and turkey meat, all with no-salt-added. The bad news is that low-sodium labels can be tricky to decode. So let’s break it down.

A Guide to Sodium Labeling

Some food packaging offers key terms to help decipher the sodium content in a product. These include:

  • No-Salt Added: These products contain no sodium chloride. And the sodium content, if any, will come from the natural sodium found in the ingredients.
  • Sodium-Free: These products have less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving and contain no sodium chloride.
  • Very Low Sodium: These products contain 35mg sodium or less per serving.
  • Low Sodium: These products contain 140mg sodium or less per serving.
  • Reduced (or Less) Sodium: This label means that the sodium level in the product has been reduced by 25 percent per serving from the original or a competitor’s product. And if that product started with over 500mg sodium per serving, then you’re still talking about 375mg of sodium per serving.
  • Light in Sodium: Like “reduced or less sodium,” the amount of sodium in this product has been reduced by at least 50 percent per serving from its original level or a competitor’s product.

How to Read Nutrition Labels for Sodium

But even if a product doesn’t carry any of these labels or say anything about sodium, give it a quick turn and look at the nutritional box. Because sodium hides in unexpected places, like medicine and spice blends and your favorite cereal. And some ingredients, like balsamic vinegar and dry pastas, will differ in sodium content depending on their manufacturer.

But some products may also be lower in sodium than expected—like marinades, cheeses, even deli meat, and those pickles! So if you’re a vigilant label reader, you’ll easily avoid unwanted sodium and find new, low-sodium secret weapons.

Understand the Percentage Daily Value

On the back of a product, you’ll find the nutrition label which will list the percentage daily value (or %DV) of sodium found in one serving. Be aware that the %DV is based on the upper recommended limit of daily sodium, or 2,400mg.

Remember to Check the Serving Size

And remember that, while the percentage of sodium is listed per serving, the can, bag, or package most likely contains more than one serving. So if you eat or use more than a single serving, make sure to multiply those sodium numbers to calculate the true total.

Read the Ingredient List Closely to Discover Sodium Sources

Next, scan the ingredient list. Of course, you’ll want to look for words like “salt,” “sodium,” and “Na.”

But also keep an eye out for sneakier sodium contributors. Some examples:

  • Sodium nitrate
  • Sodium citrate
  • Monosodium glutamate [MSG]
  • Sodium benzoate
  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda

Also look for phrases which refer to the use of sodium solutions for the plumping or brining of proteins (like poultry, pork, and even fish products), a technique that can increase weight and price, not to mention sodium content, by over 500%. Here are some giveaway words for this:

  • Added broth
  • Percent solution
  • Enhanced
  • Even “natural flavoring”

Sodium Savvy Tip! Check out the FDA’s label reading tips for determining the sodium levels in your favorite products.