What is the Salty Six? The American Heart Association coined the term for a group of popular foods that can add high levels of sodium to your diet. These foods typically have so much salt, they’ve been flagged as potentially contributing to heart disease.
So which foods are named as part of this infamous collection? Many of them – like pizza – aren’t surprising to see on the list, while others – like bread and soup – may be more unexpected.
We take a look at the FDA and WHO sodium benchmarks for these foods, and how some supermarket and restaurant examples compare.
Bread & rolls
This is one of the Salty Six that seems surprising at first. With the popularity of keto, paleo, and other “low-carb” diets, there is more awareness of processed grains as a source of sugar. Most people, however, don’t associate bread with high sodium.
While consumers are looking for healthier spreads and sandwich fillings, many are unaware of the hidden sodium baked into their daily bread. The amount of sodium in a slice of white bread is similar to that of a bag of potato chips. In fact, in the US bread is the number one contributor of dietary sodium.
The sodium guidance for bread is below:
- White bread (all forms including rolls, pita, buns, includes bread with seeds, fruit) – 550mg/100 g
- Multigrain/whole wheat flour breads – 490mg/100g
- sweet/fruit breads – 310mg/100g
- All leavened bread – 330mg/100g
- Flatbreads/tortillas,wraps,pita, naan – 320mg/100g
White bread loaves are a staple for many families. The FDA sets a higher recommended sodium value than the WHO for white bread at 550mg per 100g. It’s easy to find bread that exceeds this. One popular brand white loaf has 592mg sodium per 100g. The typical slice of bread is 50g, which means a sandwich made with this bread will start at 592mg of sodium before any spreads and fillings are added.
Multigrain breads offer more fibre, protein and nutrients than white breads – but they can also have more salt. The FDA sets a higher sodium target for these of 490mg per 100g. We found several wholegrain loaves with sodium exceeding this, including one artisan loaf with 624mg of sodium per 100g. This is nearly double the WHO benchmark of 330mg per 100g.
Newer to the mainstream market are baked goods like wraps and tortillas. One reason for their popularity is their slimmer profile which can mean fewer calories – but, they can have even more excessive sodium than sliced bread. One US brand of tortillas has a whopping 836mg of sodium per 100g.
Everyone loves pizza. Around the world, every culture has their own take on pizza. But whether it’s topped with mayonnaise in Japan, tinned tuna in Germany, or pepperoni in America – pizza is a high-sodium food. From the base, to the sauce and toppings, every component of the pizza contributes to the total sodium content. By the time all the ingredients are assembled in the final product, pizza is a real salt bomb.
The sodium guidance for pizza is below:
- Frozen & Refrigerated
- Pizza with meat/poultry/seafood – Restaurant – 630mg/100g
- Pizza without meat – R – 550mg/100g
- Pizza with meat/poultry/seafood – Packaged – 630mg/100g
- Pizza without meat – P – 550mg/100g
- Frozen & Refrigerated – 450mg/100g
For both packaged and restaurant pizza, the FDA sets the same guidance. The FDA sets separate targets for pizzas with and without meat. While many frozen pizzas are slightly over the FDA guidance, restaurant pizza is extra salty.
A popular pizza QSR has a buffalo flavoured pan pizza with 960mg of sodium per 100g – way over the FDA guidance of 630mg per 100g. Another international pizza restaurant brand has a Tandoori flavoured pizza with a massive 1,220mg per 100g. The FDA recommends no more than 2,300mg of sodium per day. Just a few slices of these delivery pizzas will put you at – or beyond – your daily sodium limit.
Just like pizza, sandwiches are in the Salty Six because their component ingredients tend to be high in sodium. In fact, sandwiches frequently include two other Salty Six foods: bread and deli meat. Add salty spreads and sauces, and a single sandwich can easily exceed the RDI for sodium.
In both the AHA definition and the FDA category, burgers are included. All burgers, with or without cheese – vegetarian or meat-based – are grouped with sandwiches and have the same sodium recommendation.
The sodium guidance for sandwiches is below:
- Deli meat based sandwiches (Restaurant) ham/beef/poultry – 720mg/100g
- Burgers – meat with cheese (includes all toppings sauces) – 590mg/100g
- Burgers – veggie with cheese – 780mg/100g
- Breakfast sandwiches on biscuits (eggs, ham, sausage, bacon, cheese) – 920mg/100g
- Breakfast sandwiches on other bread (bagel, toast, breakfast burritos, pastry) – 640mg/100g
- Sandwiches & wraps (including tacos & burritos) – 430mg/100g
The FDA guidance on deli meat sandwiches is 720mg of sodium per 100g. Depending on your chosen fillings and sauces, a sandwich from a restaurant can easily smash through this amount. A ham and cheese sandwich with pickles and light mayo from a popular QSR has an eye-watering 7,700mg of sodium per 100g. A plant-based chicken and cheese sandwich with plant-based mayo comes in at 5,000mg of sodium per 100g.
Burgers have sodium benchmarks of 590mg of sodium per 100g for meat with cheese, and 780mg of sodium per 100g for vegetarian with cheese. A basic single cheeseburger from a leading burger QSR with pickles, ketchup and mayo has 3,968mg of sodium per 100g. On the vegetarian side, a popular brand of plant-based burger in a bun with cheese and ketchup with no other toppings has 1,800mg of sodium per 100g.
As we’ve seen, burgers and sandwiches can be excessively high in sodium. But there’s one special kind of sandwich that can be even saltier. This is the “breakfast” sandwich, which sometimes takes the form of a “breakfast burrito.” These normally include bacon, cheese, and/or sausage – making them particularly salty. A well-known QSR breakfast sandwich served on an English muffin contains 1,000mg of sodium, before adding ketchup or any other sauces. One of the saltiest items is a breakfast burrito from a chicken restaurant with eggs and hash browns. A single burrito packs a big 1,750mg of sodium – that’s 76% of your sodium RDI before you’ve had any other meals.
Lowering sodium in this category is particularly important because burgers and sandwiches are usually eaten with additional salty sides. The popularity of fast food “meal deals” has increased the sodium consumed in a single meal.
Cold cuts & deli meats
Processed meats can have high levels of sodium due to the salt used in their production. Whether cooked or cured, many of our favourite snack and sandwich meats can exceed sodium benchmarks.
The sodium guidance for deli meats is below:
- Deli Meat (sliced meats, excluding bologna, salami) – 1270mg/100g
- Bologna (from beef/pork) – 1170mg/100g
- Salami/Pepperoni – 1870mg/100g
- Cooked processed meat (luncheon meats) – 540mg/100g
- Air-dried, cured processed meat (salami, pepperoni) – 830mg/100g
A quick look around the supermarket reveals many excessively salty deli meats.
While most of the sliced hams are within FDA targets, nearly all are over the WHO benchmarks. One own-brand sliced cured ham has 920mg of sodium per 100g. A favourite US brand of pork bologna has 1,151mg of sodium per 100g, and a popular turkey bologna has 1,077mg of sodium per 100g. With 250mg of sodium in a single slice of bologna, the sodium easily adds up in a sandwich.
Italian sliced hams like prosciutto are some of the saltiest deli meats, with one example having 2,120mg of sodium per 100g. Other dried sliced meats are very high in sodium. Pork salami has 2,260mg of sodium per 100g, and pepperoni has 1,761mg of sodium per 100g.
Canned soups have been around for a while as a convenience food. More recently, refrigerated soups – many in gourmet flavours – have emerged as a popular healthier option for work lunches.
Although soup has a healthy reputation, many prepared soups can hide unhealthy levels of sodium in their mix.
Sodium guidance for soup is below:
- Condensed soup – 720mg/100g
- Shelf Stable (ready to heat and eat) – 330mg/100g
- Refrigerated soup – 410mg/100g
- Canned & refrigerated – 235mg/100g
Most of the canned soups we found were slightly over the FDA guidance. Examples were a bean soup with 408mg of sodium per 100, and a fish chowder with 440mg of sodium per 100g. Some were further over the sodium target, like a cream of mushroom with 690mg of sodium per 100g.
There were a some exceptions to this, however, with a few soups way over the FDA target of 330mg of sodium per 100g. We found a lamb hotpot soup in the UK with 1040mg of sodium per 100g, and an EU brand of “slimming” soup with a huge 3,000mg of sodium per 100g – over 10x the recommended limit.
Burritos & tacos
These Mexican dishes have exploded in popularity recently. And why not? Just like pizza and burgers, they combine tasty meat, cheese, and sauces.
The sodium guidance for burritos and tacos is below:
- Tacos & Restaurants (Restaurant – excludes breakfast burritos) – 550mg/100g
- Sandwiches & wraps (including tacos & burritos) – 430mg/100g
A long-established Tex-Mex restaurant offers a set menu of tacos and burritos, filled with a variety of meats. Although their sodium levels can be increased with the addition of side sauces, they have only moderately high sodium content as prepared. Most of their burritos and tacos fall below the FDA target, with just a few exceptions like one Grilled Chicken burrito which has 560mg sodium per 100g – only slightly above the recommended level.
It’s a newer Mexican themed QSR that has been the focus of sodium concerns, because their customisable options enable diners to create an outrageously salty meal. With several types of meat, beans, and a range of available toppings that can be added with little or no extra charge, it’s easy to put your entire 2,300mg daily sodium allowance into a single burrito.
An example of this would be a beef burrito with rice, black beans, cheese, salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. These selections result in a single food item that totals 2,600mg of sodium.
Disarming the Salty Six
As consumers are more aware of the risks of high sodium, food manufacturers are working to reform the Salty Six. But how can these processed foods shed their infamous reputation?
The good news is that reformulating can be simple, and the delicious taste of these favourites doesn’t need to be sacrificed.
The solution to tackling high sodium foods like the Salty Six is an all-natural sea salt with the same taste and function as normal salt, but with 35% less sodium. This unique sea salt is called Saltwell®. A simple 1:1 replacement with Saltwell® delivers significant sodium reduction, without compromising function or sensory aspects.
And because it’s a 100% single grain and natural ingredient it can be declared on pack simply as “sea salt” – perfectly suited to clean label branding.
Saltwell® is available in range of grain sizes and blends to suit your specific manufacturing requirements.