Diet and Nutrition

What's the Difference Between Salt and Sodium?

Introduction

When people say salt, they usually mean the common table salt. Salt is a mineral that is mainly composed of sodium chloride (NaCl). To distinguish table salt from a class of chemical compounds called salts, the terms rock salt or the mineral name halite is used. 

Sodium is also a mineral that is naturally occurring in foods such as milk, beet, and celery. Sodium may also be added during the manufacturing process of packaged and processed foods, such as canned goods, lunch meats, or frozen dinners.

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When sodium (Na) is combined with chlorine (Cl2), it forms sodium chloride or the common table salt (NaCl). By weight, table salt constitutes 60 percent chloride and 40 percent sodium. People approximately consume 90 percent of sodium in the form of sodium chloride. Other sources of sodium include baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). Sodium is also added to foods to preserve them or to make their color and texture better. 

Too much sodium can be bad for the heart. According to the American Heart Association, daily sodium intake should not exceed 1,500 mg or 2/3 teaspoon of salt. The following is a quick reference guide to know the amount of sodium contained in table salt. 

  • 1 teaspoon salt: 2,300 mg sodium
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt: 1,725 mg sodium
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt: 1,150 mg sodium
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt: 575 mg sodium

The Difference Between Sodium and Salt

There are people who may think that sodium only comes from salt. However, in reality, sodium can be found almost anywhere. Food items may still contain certain amounts of sodium even if no salt is added. A few examples of food items that contain more than the recommended dietary allowance of sodium are:

  • Canned goods
  • Seafood
  • Frozen foods
  • Processed foods

Too much sodium can result in cardiovascular disease and hypertension (high blood pressure). 

There is approximately 2,300 mg of sodium in one teaspoon of salt. On average, one teaspoon of salt per day is the recommended dietary allowance for healthy adults. However, a lesser daily consumption is often recommended for those who are at risk of cardiovascular diseases. 

Around 75 percent of salt in the human diet is from processed foods. Processed foods contain salt for safety or preservation purposes. They include frozen, canned, and dried foods aside from salty snacks and savory biscuits. Another food item with added salt is bread. Salt in bread helps strengthen the dough by tightening the structure of gluten. It also slows down the activity of enzymes and fermentation in the dough. 

Other food items with high amounts of sodium that can contribute to your everyday salt intake include:

  • Cured or processed meats (sausage, hot dog, deli meats)
  • Condiments (ketchup, mayonnaise, soy sauce, marinades, and flavorings)
  • Certain dairy products (buttermilk, cottage cheese, and processed cheeses)
  • Canned vegetables
  • Soups and sauces
  • Spreads
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Other cereal products

To know the sodium content of food items, check their nutrition facts label. Also, look for other forms of sodium in food labels. They include: 

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Sodium chloride
  • Na
  • Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
  • Sodium alginate
  • Sodium benzoate
  • Sodium ascorbate
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Sodium citrate
  • Sodium saccharin
  • Sodium hydroxide
  • Disodium phosphate
  • Sodium sulfite
  • Sodium stearoyl lactylate
  • Trisodium phosphate

How to Cut Back on Salt

Salt or sodium chloride is also essential for cellular health and function. Salt along with potassium are needed to help the muscles contract and the nerves to properly function. Salt also helps maintain fluid balance, pH balance, and electrolyte balance in the body. Unfortunately, a typical American diet consists of foods that contain more salt to meet their needs. 

To help reduce your salt consumption on a daily basis, try to eat fresh foods instead of processed foods, which include:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Healthy proteins (poultry, lean meat, seafood, fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes)
  • Healthy fats (avocados, olives and their oils, seeds, and nuts)
  • Instead of adding salt to add flavor to foods, use herbs and spices
  • Dairy products with reduced fat (yogurt, unflavored milk)
  • Choose water as a drink

For those with chronic kidney disease, sodium consumption should be less than 1,500 mg each day. When sodium intake is lower in people who are on dialysis, fluids can be easily controlled.  

Importance of Sodium Chloride in the Body

Maintaining fluid balance in the body is one of the most important roles of sodium chloride. Sodium and chloride in the cells and blood help keep the body from losing excessive water. When the kidneys filter blood, sodium and chloride are taken up to prevent their excretion in the urine as well as draw water from the urine and back into the blood. 

Moreover, sodium plays a critical role when it comes to maintaining and establishing a differential charge across cell membranes. Cells are negatively charged inside while sodium is positively charged. Cells also have more sodium outside than inside. This result is called the resting membrane potential, which allows the proper communication of cells. Muscle and nerve cell functions usually depend on the resting membrane potential. Without a resting membrane potential, messages could not be sent by nerve cells and muscles could not contract. 

Conclusion

Sodium and salt are not the same. When 40 percent of sodium and 60 percent of chloride are chemically combined, they produce a compound called sodium chloride (NaCl). The most commonly used term for sodium chloride (NaCl) is salt or the common table salt. A teaspoon of salt has approximately 2,300 mg of sodium. 

Sodium is also present in other food items in the form of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), monosodium glutamate (MSG), and a preservative called sodium nitrate, among others.

Key Takeaways

  • When sodium (Na) is combined with chlorine (Cl2), it forms sodium chloride or the common table salt (NaCl). 
  • By weight, table salt constitutes 60 percent chloride and 40 percent sodium. 
  • When sodium is excessively consumed, negative effects on people's health can occur, such as cardiovascular diseases and hypertension (high blood pressure).