Using Less Salt

Americans love salt. We love salty chips, fries, crispy snack foods, restaurant foods, and packaged foods. Some of us even add salt to a food before we taste it. And a whopping 75% of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods, not the salt used in cooking and at the table.

The average American consumes 1.5 teaspoons, 3450 mg of sodium, every day. The US Dietary Guidelines recommend less than 2300 mg for healthy people under 51 years, and no more than 1500 mg for those 51 and older, or with high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. This means a big reduction in salt for most of us.

Sodium is an essential element, helping the transmission of nerve impulses, contraction and relaxation of muscle fibers, and maintaining the needed fluid balance in and around cells. The body needs very little sodium, because of its well-developed ability to conserve what it does have. When sodium levels drop, the kidneys and sweat glands work to hold onto water, preventing sodium from being eliminated. When sodium levels are high, the kidneys kick into gear to increase urine volume and excretion, getting rid the excess sodium.

Over time, consistently high sodium levels will increase blood volume, blood pressure, and hardening of blood vessels. This means an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney damage, and stomach cancer. High blood pressure is blamed for at least half of all heart attacks and is the leading cause of all strokes. 

Take action to reduce sodium
  • Minimize use processed foods
  • Cook and eat more meals at home
  • Increase fresh fruits and vegetables (naturally good sources potassium)
  • Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet
  • Read labels:
    • Sodium-free or salt-free: 5 mg or less of sodium per serving
    • Very low sodium: 35 mg of sodium or less
    • Low sodium: 140 mg of sodium or less
    • Reduced or less sodium*: At least 25% less sodium than regular version
    • Light in sodium*: At least 50% the regular versio
    • Unsalted or no salt added: No salt is added during processing
    • Sodium containing ingredients: Monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, sodium nitrate or nitrites, also contain sodium.
    • *May still be high in sodium; watch nutrition labels

Learning to cook and love foods prepared with less salt requires some patience, practice, and perseverance, with a willingness to try something new. Here's are a few tricks to help you along the way:

  • Use the freshest ingredients possible. Buy local and shop at your farmer's market as often as you can. Fresher ingredients deliver much deeper, richer flavors.
  • Experiment with herbs and spices. Here's a great publication put out by the University of Michigan's Health Systems that you may want to print out:
  • Check the freshness of your herbs and spices 
    • Look: throw it out if it looks faded, clumpy, or signs of insects.
    • Sniff test: Does it smell like that herb or spice? If not, throw it out. 
    • Taste a tiny bit: if you can taste the distinctive flavor of that herb, it's good. If not, throw it out.
    • Shelf life guidelines: ground spices 1.5 years, whole spices 2 years, leafy herbs 1-3 years, whole seeds 3-4 years
  • Try cooking with wine for a wonderfully rich flavor. Just be sure to use wine good enough to drink, not "cooking wine" which unfortunately has salt added to it. 
  • Either eliminate the salt shaker at the table, or fill it with a recipe for one of the many salt-free blends out there. 
    • I like this one from AllRecipes:
      • 4 tsp sesame seeds
      • 2 tsp celery seed
      • 2 tsp Italian seasoning
      • 2 tsp dried parsley flakes
      • 1 tsp poppy seeds
      • 1 tsp ground black pepper
      • 1 tsp onion powder
      • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
      • 3/4 tsp granulated garlic (I use powder)
      • 3/4 tsp paprika