Mmm, mmm . . . almost good

When you’ve just come into the house from shoveling, working outdoors, sledding in the snow or any winter activity, little is more comforting, nostalgic and pleasing than a nice hot bowl of soup. In fact, it’s hard not to love soup, any time of year. But if you want to add “nutritious” to the list of popular soup accolades, you have to be aware of hidden dangers from excess salt and additives.

That’s not to snow on our parades, but since it’s National Nutrition Month – and soup is part of most American diets – it bears taking a closer look at how to ensure that this popular and diverse staple is as healthy as it is filling.

It’s hard to imagine that any delicious steaming concoction brimming with vegetables, grains, noodles, meat or fish isn’t good for us. But truth be told, there’s typically one prime ingredient hiding in soup that is a major contributor to heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke – if you guessed “salt,” you’re right!

More than 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from salt added to processed foods. We often don’t even know we’re eating it. And while cutting table salt is wise, it may only be putting a tiny dent in our sodium total.

Sodium is a major flavor additive and preservative in canned soups, and in homemade or restaurant soups that use canned or pre-packaged chicken, beef or vegetable stocks as a base. With so much salt in our food, it’s no wonder the average American gets more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. That’s more than double the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams.

Manufacturers use salt to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but very little is needed in the diet – it’s estimated that the body needs less than 500 mg of sodium a day to perform its functions, an amount much lower than what the average American consumes.   

In an ideal world we’d all handpick fresh ingredients and cook them at home, ensuring a limited sodium, fat and preservative intake. In the real world, however, we don’t always have time to cook.  So how can we ensure that we’re consuming soup and other “healthy” products that are truly good for us?  The answer lies in knowledge and smart shopping.

Preserving our health

Food additives help process or prepare soups and foods, keep the product fresh, or make it more appealing. This includes emulsifiers that prevent liquid products from separating, stabilizers and thickeners that provide an even texture, and anticaking agents that allow substances to flow freely. They also prevent fruits and vegetables from turning brown when they are exposed to air. Finally, they provide color, and enhance the taste.

In the supermarket, your best ally is the Nutrition Facts Label on product packages, which lists how much sodium is in each serving, and other content. As a guideline, to include a “sodium free or salt free” claim on the label, a product cannot exceed 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.  A product with a “low sodium” claim must not exceed 140 mg per serving.  A “no salt added or unsalted” claim on the label does not mean the food is “sodium free.”  Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium.

Also, look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of a heart-healthy diet. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification. You can learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program and find foods that are currently certified by visiting heartcheckmark.org.

The bottom line is to take time and learn about the different products we’re putting in our bodies, and make smart choices that achieve a balance between convenience, cost and content. Making soup and other foods from scratch or knowing how it’s prepared by others is your best option. Ask questions when you’re purchasing meals from restaurants and take-out counters, and read the food labels on prepared products you purchase at the grocery store. You can then make an informed choice and consider product alternatives.  The truth is, if you’re careful and smart, you can still have your soup and eat it, too!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!