Is Bread Really That High In Sodium?

You may have noticed that the levels of sodium in the food supply and in Americans’ diets are getting quite a lot of attention in the press these days.  The latest news was generated by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report titled, Where's The Sodium?  There's Too Much In Many Common Foods, which listed several commonly consumed foods as the major contributors to sodium intake by consumers.  What are these foods?  Well, bread and rolls were at the top of the list followed by deli meats, canned soups and sauces.  The report stated that 44% of sodium comes from just 10 foods in the food supply.  It is not a surprise that breads and rolls topped that list because Americans love their sandwiches and dinner rolls. 

 Is Bread Really That High In Sodium?

The answer is, not really.  An average slice of bread can vary greatly in sodium content depending on the slice’s thickness and size.  Sodium amounts can range anywhere between 100-200 mg. per slice (compared to:  chips {168mg/serving}, canned chicken noodle soup {578mg/serving},or a milk shake {297mg/serving} (source:  USDA National Nutrient Database).  As you can see, the statistics from CDC are about the overall amounts of bread products consumed and not the actual total in each piece of bread. 

Since you don't actually taste the salt in bread, why is sodium used in bread at all?  Well, sodium does enhance flavor in breads, especially in whole grain products which can taste somewhat bitter without it, but it is sodium’s functionality that is most important in baking bread.  Sodium is needed to activate the yeast particles in the early stages of bread baking, as well as strengthening gluten-activity. Gluten is the protein in bread which gives the product texture and the elasticity needed for producing the volume and loaf-like shape that we all desire in our breads.   Without sodium, we would all have flat, tasteless bread.  Not very appealing!

It is important to review the challenges faced by the baking industry with respect to reducing sodium in products.  Some in the industry believe that a slow and gradual reduction of sodium in food would go unnoticed by consumers and their palates would adjust over time to the lower sodium products.  This is an effective strategy for products that don't require significant sodium reductions such as the recommendations being put forth by the federal government and some health professional groups.  For larger decreases in sodium, the industry faces challenges with loss of flavor, decreased shelf life, stability, safety and general lack of product acceptability.  Salt replacers have been tried for years and have not been met with great results in the past due to  production of off-flavors and decreased functionality in some products.  Currently, blends of salt replacers like potassium chloride or magnesium sulphate are being used to replace sodium because they are considered to be better accepted by consumers.  One of the main challenges in making a lower sodium bread product besides taste is that the bread becomes sticky and is less easy to process by lowering sodium levels.  In spite of the challenges the industry faces when trying to reduce sodium in products, they continue to do so.  Many baking companies are committed to reducing sodium in products and have recently shown a 6% decrease in sodium in bread products and a 29% decrease since 1963, according to the American Bakers Association. 

It is important to put any issue like this into context and remember that there is never one food that contributes all of the “good” or “not so good” nutrients to our diets.  It is the collective diet that we need to consider and strive to balance on a daily basis.