Dear Salty,

You are right that most meat substitutes have high amounts of sodium. Salt as a flavor enhancer and preservative is ubiquitous in processed foods, and vegan items are not exempt. While we do need some in our diets to assist with functions like muscle contraction, it is possible to consume too much when relying on convenience items, like vegan meats or even canned beans.

How much is too much?

It has been reported by the Center for Disease Control & Prevention that the average American consumes slightly over 3,400 mg per day of sodium. This amount is over 1,000 mg more than the recommendation of 2,300 mg per day, which translates into around one teaspoon of table salt (read as “not much!”).

So, what does that translate into as far as food goes?

An average veggie sausage (think Tofurky or Field Roast) contains roughly 600 mg per link. A veggie patty can easily have 500 mg, while deli slices average 300 mg per serving. Add to this that you may be using bread or a bun, along with high salt condiments like pickles or ketchup, and you could easily push 1,000 mg for that single meat substitute portion of your meal.

Doing the math, you can see how it’s easy to push the salt envelope if you consume these meat substitutes at most meals.

Why do we need salt at all?

So why the hullabaloo over sodium in the first place? Our bodies need some sodium for essential functions like muscle contractions; however, in excessive amounts, salt can increase blood pressure. This condition, known as hypertension, causes the heart to work harder. It can also stress other organs, like the kidneys, and lead to a stroke.

As scary as that thought is, so is that of having your bones deteriorate, am I right? There is emerging research that points the finger at increased sodium intake with decreased bone health. Studies, like that of the EPIC-Oxford, suggest vegans may not be consuming enough calcium-rich foods on a daily basis. Compound that with excessive consumption of sodium-rich foods, and we could be creating the perfect storm to the detriment of our bones.

Don’t eliminate, diversify instead

Must you give up your favorite vegan meat to maintain your sodium intake within the daily guidelines? Not necessarily, but reducing your consumption and adding some basic protein-rich staples into the mix will help balance out your sodium levels.

I consume vegan meats maybe once per week (and that may be a stretch); otherwise, I am a bean, tofu, and tempeh kind of gal. All of which, in their natural states, are low in sodium.

Where does that leave canned beans? If you drain and rinse them, you can decrease the sodium content by 40% according to the Harvard School of Public Health website. Remember, you can make veggie burgers yourself, and thereby control their sodium content.

Final recommendation

I certainly understand the convenience factor involved in these meat substitutes, and I don’t think they need to be eliminated to altogether to have a healthy diet.

That being said, I stay firm in my recommendation that the bulk of our diets should be based on unprocessed plant foods, which are naturally low in sodium while rich in a variety of other nutrients.

Ask Anya is a column written by Anya Todd, MS, LD, RD on vegan health to help educate others on how to live healthier and more fulfilling lives. Anya covers hot topics and commonly asked questions about vegan nutrition.

Photo credit: MTSOfan via Flickr