Cris LaBossiere

Cris LaBossiere
Strength training and mountain biking. My two favorites

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Salty lies: nutrition labels misleading

The average adult needs about 1500mg of sodium per day.

The upper limit for the daily intake is 2300 mg.

The average Canadian consumes around 3300 mg/ day, but many will take in over 7000 mg per day when eating out.

Nearly 80% of Canadians daily sodium intake comes from packaged processed foods and restaurant foods.

If you're exercising for hours and you're a salty sweater, you'll need more sodium, but I seriously doubt these manufactures thought that most of their customers are training for hours every day, thus resulting in an elevated upper sodium intake value.

CBC Market Place says the percent of daily sodium intake listed on most food labels is based on an intake of 2400 mg/ day, instead of the recommended 1500 mg/ day.   What could possibly motivate a company to make percentage of sodium intake for daily needs appear smallar than it actually is?

You all know I love myth busting.  Rarely am I more motivated to dig into something more intently than uncovering an urban myth where diet and exercise are concerned.

The column on the right in the food nutrition label shows the percentage of recommended daily value, the percentage of how much you need for a day.  The recommended daily intake for sodium is 1500 mg.

For the nutrition label below, sodium is shown at  290 mg, which makes up according to this label, 12% of the daily need for sodium.  290 is 12% of 2416.  That's 100 mg more than the 2300 mg upper tolerable intake, and 900 mg more than the recommended healthy intake of 1500 mg a day.

Here's the reality check on common food items:

Milligrams of sodium per serving size - percentage of daily intake

Organic yogurt:  85 mg   4% of daily value              calculated daily intake = 2125 mg

Multigrain bread:  300 mg  13%                                              2307 mg

Skim milk        140 mg         6%                                              2333 mg

Almond milk     150 mg        6%                                             2500 mg

Vegan kale juice  80 mg       3%                                              2666 mg

Low fat mayonnaise   135 mg 6%                                           2250 mg

Low sodium Ketchup 60 mg    3%                                          2000 mg

Mustard            55 mg    2%                                                     2750 mg

Canned pizza sauce  250 mg  10%                                           2500 mg

Canned kidney beans    350 mg 15%                                       2333  mg

Low sodium canned peas  15 mg  1%                                      1500 mg 

Canned sardines        200 mg  8%                                             2500 mg

Tomato paste            20 mg  1%                                                 2000 mg

Potato chips        180 mg  7%                                                     2571 mg

"Healthy" potato chips  210 mg  9%                                          2333 mg

If you use the percent of daily intake on nutrition labels as your guide for your sodium intake, you will always be far above the recommend intake of 1500 mg/ day.

The only product out of these samples that based the daily intake of sodium on the recommended intake of 1500 mg a day was Safeway "Eating Right" low sodium canned peas.  Hooray for Safeway!

But wait.. Safeway "Eating Right" multigrain bread used 2300 mg/ day, and Safeway brand tomato paste used 2000 mg/ day.

The superfood superstar, super expensive, ultimate-in-health-anti-cancer organic vegan kale juice?  They think you need 2666 mg/ day of sodium.

Even within the same brand, you can't expect consistency, and don't expect that makers of health foods are beyond tweaking their values to appear more healthy than they actually are.

The percent of daily sodium needs value is bogus on nutrition labels.  I wouldn't pay any attention to it.  Instead, look at the total milligrams of sodium and do the math yourself, since food companies math can't be trusted it seems.  Who knows if companies actually put in the amount of sodium they claim in the first place.  This is self-regulated by manufacturers, there isn't any third party process in place that ensures nutrition label claims are accurate.

A final note: Sea salt has the exact same amount of sodium in it as regular processed table salt and affects blood pressure exactly the same; there is zero health benefit to using sea salt instead of regular salt.  In fact sea salt might even be worse for you if it isn't fortified with iodine.

The Great Salt Shakedown, CBC Marketplace:

Marketplace tests the sodium levels in junior hockey players, masters swimmers, and non-athletes.

Government of Canada stats, info on sodium intake in Canada:

Reading food labels Health Canada


  1. Hi Cris, Your post about sodium content on nutritional labels is a much needed! Thanks again for relaying and exposing sometimes hard truths on nutrition, fitness and exercise.

    This gets me thinking about something my eight year old daughter has mentioned to me a few times. She has said to me" Dad sometimes people a school call me weird because of what I have in my lunch." My wife is Vegan and so naturally my daughter goes to school with vegan lunches 90% of the lots of chick peas and lentils. It makes sense to me that kids pick up the eating habits of their parents and from the description of what some of the other kids bring for lunch (according to my daughter) it is not that good. eg, pizza pops, lunchables etc. We are told that our eating habits start being formed when we are quite young. So I can only imagine the health difference it would make in peoples lives if every Parent had even a one hour basic nutrition course under their belt!

    I guess we are seeing the consequences of people being under educated hanging over their belts. Or maybe not and a lot of people actually know better but can't get past the very intentionally engineered bliss point of their favorite comfort foods and they go on to push these unhealthy but sure tasty meals on their children.

    Thanks again Cris
    What are your thoughts?

    1. One of the most common complaints I hear from people switching to healthy eating is that they get teased for doing so by their friends, family, and peers. Some are even called stupid, kooks, and other pleasantries, all for eating an orange instead of a doughnut.

      It's hard to move forward. People are unfairly teased for being overweight, but also teased for eating healthy.

      Culturally we don't support healthy eating. We've adapted the idea that healthy eating is unrewarding and unsatisfying. Many people feel strongly that eating healthy is unrewarding and can't figure out why people would choose to eat healthy, so anyone who does eat healthy is seen as weird for doing so.

      Although Health Canada's Food Guide recommends eating beans, lentils, and tofu often, these great tasting nutrient powerhouses are not part of most peoples diets so these foods are unfamiliar to most, and how do we usually treat things we're unfamiliar with? Usually rejection.

      It's true that anyone who regularly eats foods engineered with high concentrations of salt, sugar, and fat, will be living unwittingly with altered brain chemistry that drives appetite. It's also true that many don't really know the value of (or lack thereof) what they currently eat or how to eat healthy.

      The combination of being habituated into unhealthy eating, not understanding healthy eating, and prejudice towards healthy eating makes it difficult to make inroads with healthy living habits.

      There is a lot more press now on exactly why crap food is crap, and why it really is a bad idea to be so willing to embrace unhealthy habits. My hope is people will come around.

      Childhood obesity is growing faster than obesity in any other age group. Your daughter is definitely in the minority, but hopefully your families healthy choices will be a positive influence on others.

  2. To add a bit more, it seems that food companies must have honesty impairment issues and overly flexible morals in order to try to pull the wool over peoples eyes. Nobody needs to be getting 1/2 or more of their daily intake of salt from one serving. Altering their nutritional labels to look healthier by increasing the upper limit of sodium is plain simply lying.


  3. It's a good thing we have the choice to buy whole foods. I'm not in favor of a "fat tax" or bans on junk food, but if companies can't get their stuff together I am not against regulating food companies to prevent them from putting stupid amounts of salt, sugar, and fat into foods.

    However anyone is capable of choosing not to buy unhealthy food.

    The best way to show dissatisfaction with these ethically challenged companies is to not buy their products. That will have a far more profound impact than legislation will.