Watch Your Sodium Intake

The Early Show, Dr. Emily Senay, sodium
CBS/The Early Show
Experts in public health say Americans are eating so much extra salt that it's swelling the ranks of people with dangerous high blood pressure. Now there is a major push from the government to get the salt out.

Before you even pick up that saltshaker, The Early Show Medical Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay reports, chances are you're already overdoing it.

Dr. Stephen Havas, a preventive medicine specialist from the University of Maryland says, "Probably about a fifth of teaspoon total is what people need. In contrast the average person in this country is consuming almost two teaspoons a day."

Two teaspoons is equal to a whopping 4,000 milligrams of salt, almost twice the recommended daily 2,400 milligrams per day. Dr. Stephen Havas is at the forefront of efforts to get rid of hidden salt from the nation's diet.

Where is the salt in our diet coming from?

Dr, Havas says, "I think most people have no idea that most of the salt they're getting comes from processed foods and restaurant foods."

The big surprise is how quickly the numbers add up in the supermarket aisles: canned soup as much as 950 milligrams per serving; a frozen pizza, as much as 2,500 milligrams; canned peas, as much as 800 milligrams per serving.

Pre-made spaghetti sauces have over 1,000 milligrams per cup. So if you want spaghetti sauce, the best way to have it without so much sodium in it is to make your own, suggests Dr. Havas.

He notes the frozen foods section is one of the worst parts of the supermarket in terms of the amount of salt. He says, "Here is just one example: macaroni and cheese, which people like to eat a lot of in this country. One cup of macaroni and cheese has almost 1,000 milligrams of sodium, and who ever eats just one cup of macaroni and cheese?"

The only real salt-free zone is the fresh produce section.

Dr. Havas says, "This is definitely the place to be, because all of the foods that are found here are really good for you. They're really healthy, they help prevent hypertension; they don't have any salt in them."

But salt is not always an ingredient you can control. It's common practice for restaurants to prepare food with a lot of added salt, and the numbers are often increased even more with larger servings.

Restaurant chef Chris Cherry says, "I'd be surprised if people knew how much salt we add. That's what makes the flavor come through."

Dr. Havas says, "The goal is really to have the people who manufacture food start to reduce the amount of sodium that's in there. We've estimated that roughly 150,000 lives a year would be saved if sodium were reduced in processed and restaurant foods by 50 percent. That's a huge number of deaths."

The American Public Health Association has challenged the food industry to reduce by half the amount of added salt in processed and restaurant foods over the next 10 years. You don't need to actually have high blood pressure to be concerned about salt. High sodium can certainly contribute to the development of high blood pressure.