Sodium gets a bad rap from dieticians, but this simple element also plays a heroic role in our health. It’s true that sodium imbalances factor into serious health problems, from high blood pressure to heart failure; but plants, animals, and people all need sodium to survive. It helps keep fluids balanced and flowing and is essential to life (Scientific American).


Always Present, Never Seen

Silvery white sodium hides in plain sight. Few people have ever seen this soft reactive mineral (Na) because it always bonds with other elements to form compounds, or salts, that dissolve easily in water. Streams and rivers absorb salts as they move across the earth on their journeys to the sea. Over time, as seawater evaporates, the salts remain—giving the ocean its salty taste and making it easier for objects to float (

Most sodium enters our diet via food salt, also known as sodium chloride (NaCl). People everywhere cook with salt and shake it onto food to make it tastier. Traditional cuisines preserve food with salt to slow toxic bacterial growth and to create fermented vegetables such as kimchee and sauerkraut. During fermentation, sodium pulls water from the plant tissues. As liquid fills the container, air bubbles rise to the surface, leaving behind the right low-oxygen environment for lactic fermentation. Sodium also sneaks into modern diets through baking soda, artificial sweeteners, and fizzy medications.

Beyond the kitchen, sodium ushers energy, beauty, and light into our lives. Ancient people discovered glass by burning sodium carbonate with unslaked lime (calcium oxide). Today, glass windows bring bright daylight into homes, and reflective glass-walled skyscrapers define modern architecture. Streetlamps glow golden from pure sodium, which also helps move heat in nuclear power plants.


The Potassium Connection

In 1807, Sir Humphrey Davy isolated pure sodium and discovered potassium, sodium’s hard working health partner. These two nutrients delicately maintain crucial fluid balances in the body. At a cellular level, molecular pumps pull in potassium and force out sodium. The resulting chemical battery powers nerve signals and muscle contractions.

Biology’s fine-tuning should harmonize sodium and potassium levels, but our modern diet wreaks havoc with the original plan. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers ate lots of potassium (via fruits and vegetables) but lacked abundant salt sources. Human bodies evolved to retain precious sodium but easily release more abundant nutrients like potassium and Vitamin C. Modern people still favor salty flavors, but in an era of cheap salt, tend to eat too much sodium and not enough potassium. These low potassium levels can backfire, signaling the body to hoard even more sodium—a potentially dangerous health situation that overworks the kidneys.


A Sneaky Villain

Policy-makers blame excess sodium for public health problems, and urge cutting back on dietary sodium (Scientific American). The CDC notes that “when salt intake is reduced, blood pressure begins falling within weeks on average.” The FDA recommends a daily intake of no more than 2,300 mg of sodium for adults, but most Americans eat over 3,400 mg per day, with 75% of this coming from restaurant and packaged foods. Only 11% arrives from natural sources, including the salt used in home cooking.

Cutting back on sodium intake can be tricky because it’s not always an obvious ingredient, and high-sodium foods may not taste salty. Restaurant diners eat six times more sodium than they realize (according to new research published by the journal Appetite). Processed foods tip the sodium scale because commercial food producers depend on salt to intensify flavors and protect against spoilage.

Product labels often list common hidden sources of sodium, including flavor enhancers (monosodium glutamate/MSG), artificial sweeteners (sodium saccharin), leavening agents (baking soda), and prepared ingredients such as Worcestershire sauce, garlic salt, and bouillon. Other notorious offenders include fast foods and canned products.

Today’s consumers demand lower sodium food, so researchers continue to explore ways to replace salt preservation with safe new technologies, including heat, irradiation, and pulsed electric fields (New Food Magazine).

It’s a snap to manage sodium intake by cooking food from scratch at home. Many fresh ingredients, such as vegetables, grains, and meats, sport reasonable amounts of sodium. More sodium-dense natural foods include cottage cheese (1,000 mg per cup), cooked spinach and collard greens, and raw celery and carrots (75 mg per serving). Most fruits offer less than 50 mg per serving (

Clever cooks tip the scales towards healthy sodium balance by including potassium rich ingredients, such as yogurt, lentils, and tomatoes. The average adult should eat at least 4,700 mg of potassium per day, but most people get less than 2,700 mg. Cooked sweet potatoes and beet greens include 75 mg of sodium, but come out ahead with a generous 448 mg of potassium. A medium banana delivers 423 mg of potassium but only one mg of sodium (USDA).

If your doctor says you must reduce sodium, don’t despair. Fresh food tastes great. The Mayo Clinic notes that the less salt you use, the less you’ll crave it, and the more you’ll enjoy the real flavor of the food and its health benefits.


Sneaky Sodium Sources

  • Restaurant foods
  • Canned foods
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Garlic salt
  • Bouillon


Potassium Helpers

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomato sauce
  • Beet greens
  • Beans & lentils
  • Yogurt
  • Bananas


Ways to Reduce Sodium

  • Cook at home with natural ingredients
  • Avoid eating fast food and salty snacks
  • Snack on simple whole foods (apples, unsalted nuts)
  • Look for “low sodium” on product labels

Linda Gardner Phillips is a writer and creative director living at the Deerpath Farm Conservation Community in Lake County, Illinois. Her specialties include food, healthy living, and transformative design thinking. She can be reached at