5 tips for using less salt in cooking without sacrificing flavor

Salt containers. PHOTO: Generic

I have spent a big chunk of my adult life thinking about salt, even obsessing over it at times. It comes with my job as a culinary dietitian and your Nourish columnist. For me salt is a make-or-break ingredient – too little, and a dish tastes flat; too much, and it skids out of the healthy zone.

Salt is critical for flavor. It enhances sweetness, mellows bitterness, improves texture, acts as a preservative – and more.

That’s why if it is missing from a recipe’s ingredient list, it’s most likely a typo. But too much salt can have serious health consequences, mainly because it increases the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension,) which causes heart disease and stroke, and can lead to kidney, brain and eye damage. A startling nine out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium, 3,400 milligrams a day on average. That well exceeds the maximum Daily Value of 2,300 milligrams and is more than double the 1,500 milligrams the American Heart Association says is ideal for heart health.

A new study sheds light on just how beneficial it can be to cut back on salt. Published in the JAMA, the study showed that reducing salt by 1 teaspoon a day – going from a high-sodium to a low-sodium diet – was just as effective at lowering blood pressure as taking medication. The dramatic results were seen in just one week. The study also underscored that even those taking blood pressure medications benefit from reducing their sodium intake. You can’t just pop a pill and forget about what you are eating – you also need to keep salt in check for optimal health.

If you don’t have high blood pressure, you might think this doesn’t apply to you, but it does. Cutting back on salt can help keep you at the lower end of the normal blood pressure range, which reduces cardio risk factors and helps prevent hypertension down the road. It also tempers a preference for salt (more on that below) and may reduce uncomfortable bloating and puffiness. (There’s a small subset of people who should avoid a low-sodium diet – it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor before you make any significant dietary changes.)

The low-sodium plan the participants in the study followed was pretty drastic – a mere 500 milligrams of sodium a day, less than 1/4 teaspoon of salt. For most people (including me) such a sudden drop would be unpleasant and unsustainable. I can practically taste the bland just thinking about it.

Happily, it’s not necessary to go to such extremes in real life. Just like any steps are better than none in terms of physical activity any reduction in dietary sodium is better than no reduction, in the vast majority of individuals, explained Dr. Deepak K. Gupta, one of the principal investigators of the study. It’s key to make changes you can realistically stick with, because the benefits of salt reduction evaporate as rapidly as they set in if you go back to consuming more of it. Lowering your sodium intake strategically and sustainably, without sacrificing flavor, is the way to go to reap the benefits in the long run. Here are some ways to help you do that:

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Cook more

More than 70 percent of the sodium in our diets comes from packaged, processed and prepared foods. That’s why to make a dent in our collective salt tooth it’s critical that the food industry and policymakers commit to stepping down salt in these products. But, individually, cooking more often and using minimally processed ingredients, is the single most impactful thing you can do to keep sodium in check. Any dish you make yourself will probably have less sodium than a store-bought version, but note that recipes in the Food section labeled “healthy” have a sensible cap of 600 milligrams sodium for a main course and 300 milligrams for sides, salads and desserts already baked in.

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Build flavor healthfully

Instead of leaning on salt as a primary seasoning, build flavor healthfully by exploring the wide and wondrous realm of spices, fresh and dried herbs, citrus juice and zest, vinegars, chiles, mushrooms, garlic, onion, ginger and more, then use salt sparingly to bring it all together. There are many excellent salt-free seasoning blends to shake onto foods, too.

If you taste a finished dish and it seems a bit flat, try a spritz of lemon juice or a splash of vinegar before you reach for the salt. Often, that bit of acid is all a dish needs to have a compelling pop. Don’t get trapped in an all-or-nothing mentality: Some salt is important for flavor, just use it strategically.

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Check labels and buy low-sodium

There’s no need to rule out convenient canned, boxed and frozen ingredients. Just opt for those labeled low-sodium or no-salt-added whenever possible. You can always add salt and/or other seasonings to taste, but this way you’re in control of how much. Check the nutrition labels on packaged foods to compare sodium levels in those that aren’t explicitly low-sodium. Salt content can vary widely within the same food category, and many foods that don’t taste salty, such as bread, cottage cheese and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals can be surprisingly high in sodium. A typical slice of bread, for example, has about as much sodium as a serving of potato chips. That doesn’t mean bread or other nutritious higher-sodium items are bad, it just means sodium is a factor to consider.

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Factor in salty seasonings

Many mouthwatering ingredients such as mustard, miso, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, hot sauce, olive, capers and many cheeses are inherently salty. When I use them, I think of them accordingly as forms of salt, adding them to dishes first and tasting before reaching for it.

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Retrain your taste buds

The more salt you are accustomed to eating, the more it takes to perceive saltiness in food. So by habitually eating a lot of salt we trap ourselves into needing an excess for food to taste good. Luckily, “taste buds are adaptable little fellas,” says preventive and lifestyle medicine expert Dr. David Katz. It takes a couple of months to adjust, but eventually lower sodium foods start tasting amply salty. Katz calls the transition “taste bud rehab,” and it’s a program worth committing to, especially because there are so many other flavors to explore.

If I’ve got you thinking about salt, good. That was the plan. But there is no need to obsess about it (you can leave that to me). Instead, practice these strategies until they become second nature. Over time, you will wind up eating less salt – without thinking about it at all.




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