Shocking Findings About Sodium in our Restaurant Foods that You Need to Know

Table salt, sea salt, finishing salt - shocking findings about sodium

(  Sodium is a mineral that is found in salt.  Our bodies need sodium to control blood pressure and help with muscle and nerve function.  The problem is that most of us get too much sodium in our diets.  And that’s a problem because too much sodium can lead to health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.  Sodium intake is now called the leading preventable risk factor for death world-wide.

The amount of sodium we need is shown here:


Aim for this much Sodium

(Adequate Intake) 

Avoid going above this level of sodium

(Upper Intake Level)

Adults (31-50 years) 1500 mg/day 2300 mg/day
Children (4-8 years) 1200 mg/day 1900 mg/day

So, where is all the excess sodium in our diets coming from?  From restaurants and processed foods.  In fact, 77% of dietary sodium is found in processed and restaurant foods (Scourboutakos et al 2013).

Sodium in our restaurant foods:

A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health looked at the sodium levels of over 9000 food items from 65 fast-food restaurants and 20 sit-down restaurants in Canada.  Here is a snap shot of their findings:

  • The average amount of sodium in average sit-down restaurant items: 1455 mg per serving (or 97% of the Adequate Intake level), not including side dishes.
  • 22% of sit down restaurant sandwiches/wraps, pasta entrees with meat/seafood and ribs exceed the Upper Intake Level of sodium (2300 mg sodium).  
  • The average amount of sodium in children’s menu items: 790 mg per serving.
  • The top contributors to sodium in children's menu items were tacos/burritos (1231 mg), pizza (1076 mg), chicken (1021 mg), chicken nuggets/strips (888 mg).

The food categories with an average sodium per serving above 1500 mg of sodium were as follows:

  • Stir-fry entrees (2360 mg)
  • Sandwiches/wraps (1826 mg)
  • Ribs (1775 mg)
  • Pasta entrees with meal/seafood (1760 mg)
  • Tacos/burritos (1530 mg)
  • Hamburgers (1517 mg).

Many of the above numbers do not represent the sodium values for an entire meal, meaning that our sodium intake from foods eaten at a restaurant are likely to be even higher! (and higher yet from the foods we eat elsewhere in the day).  The sodium levels in Canadian fast-food and sit-down restaurants is extremely high.

Sodium in our food supply

A small amount of sodium is naturally found in our foods.  A major source of sodium in our diets is sodium chloride, or common table salt.

We get dietary sodium through:

  • table salt,
  • flavored salts,
  • flavor enhancers and
  • preservatives added during food processing. 

It is estimated that, each day, ~25% of Canadians eat something prepared in a fast-food outlet; and an added 21% eat something made in a sit-down restaurant, cafeteria or other food venue.  

Sodium adds flavor and helps preserve food.  It is found in processed meats, cheese, sauces, pickled foods, condiments and commercial pasta mixes. It is also found in foods that don’t necessarily taste salty – breads, cereals, some canned foods. Click here for a visual breakdown of the sources of sodium in our diet.  

Sodium content of foods that might surprise you1:

Food Serving size Amount of sodium
Salt (table salt, Kosher, sea salt & pickling salt) 1 tsp 1720 - 2373 mg
Soy sauce  1 tbsp 914 - 1038 mg
Teriyaki sauce 1 tbsp 700 mg
Salsa 1/4 cup 394 - 466 mg
Ketchup 2 tbsp 334 - 358 mg
Pretzels 50 g 860 - 870 mg
Popcorn, flavoured or plain microwave 50 g 314 - 529 mg
Chips (potato, vegetable, tortillas) 50 g 421 - 502 mg 


  Serving size  Amount of sodium
Canned/bottle tomato sauce 1/2 cup 585 - 721 mg
Small dill pickle 1 324 - 447 mg
Canned stewed tomatoes 1/2 298 mg

Grain products:

  Serving size Amount of sodium
Breakfast cereal, dry, all kinds 30 grams 242 - 332 mg
Crackers, all varieties, salted 30 grams 192 - 335 mg
Bread, all types 1 slice 147 - 238 mg

Milk & Milk Alternatives:

  Serving size Amount of sodium
Cottage cheese (1% and 2%) 1 cup 788 - 970 mg
Processed cheese slices 1.5 ounces 685 - 794 mg
Cheddar and mozza cheese 1.5 ounces 208 - 482 mg

Meat and Alternatives

  Serving size Amount of sodium
Luncheon/deli meat (pork, chicken), reduced sodium 2.5 ounces 710 mg
Cooked and cured ham 2.5 ounces 621 - 1125 mg
Rotisserie chicken 2.5 ounces 334 - 418 mg
Smoked fish 2.5 ounces 572 - 764 mg
Baked beans, canned 3/4 cup 644 - 935 mg 

Tips to lower sodium

Do not take an all-or-nothing approach to the foods highlighted above – ie –do not say to yourself "I should never eat canned tomatoes", or, "I should never eat soy sauce".  I showed the sodium values for the foods above to raise awareness of the sodium you may be getting in your diet without realizing it

If the foods you choose are higher in sodium, there are strategies you can take to lower your sodium intake.  Here are a few tips to get you started:

When shopping:

  • Read your nutrition labels on your packaged foods.  You will be surprised that, even if some foods do not taste salty, they contribute to our sodium intake (do you taste all the sodium in some of your breakfast cereals?  I don't).  Choose nutrient-rich foods that are lower in sodium.
  • Choose whole foods most often:  Add the following foods to you cart: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, milk, yogurt and soy beverages, unseasoned meats, fish and poultry, seafood and tofu, unsalted nuts and nut butters, legumes, eggs and low sodium canned fish.
  • Try no-added salt and reduced sodium brands of foods.
  • Expand your view on what counts as a snack.  Choose unsalted snack foods like air-popped popcorn.  A crunchy apple with some nut butter can be very satisfying!

At home:

  • Add less sodium during cooking.  Taste before you salt your food at the table.  
  • Keep the salt shaker off the table.  
  • Boost flavor in your foods by adding fresh garlic, spices, reduced sodium broths, and flavored vinegar.
  • Serve condiments, dressings and sauces on the side.  

When eating out:

  • Ask for condiments, dressings and sauces on the side.
  • Taste before you salt your food.  
  • Eat out less often.  

If you would like more tips for lowering your sodium intake, contact me for personalized nutrition and culinary solutions. 


  1. Scourboutakos M, Abbe MRL.  Sodium Levels in Canadian Fast-food and Sit-Down Restaurants.  Canadian Journal of Public Health.  2013.  Volume 104(1): e2-e8.  Available from 
  2. Dietitians of Canada.  Food Sources of Sodium.  in Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition [PEN].  Available from:  2011 April 04.  Cited April 16, 2013. Access only by subscription.

Written by Calgary Dietitian Kristyn Hall MSc, RD, Dietitian and Director with HealthCastle Calgary.

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HealthCastle, founded in 1997, is the largest online nutrition community run by Registered Dietitians. Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or dietitian. Information and statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.