Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Salt and Flavor Savvy

Pepper may be used to add the heat, but when it comes to diet debates the seasoning closest to the fire is salt.

Talk about spicing things up!

Government health officials have declared the sodium in table salt as a nutrition no-no with advice to limit intake in home cooking, restaurant menus, processed foods and school lunches. Sodium levels in foods have been on the nutrition watch list for years because research studies show that too much sodium in the diet is associated with high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Meanwhile, there’s a heaping helping of scientists who say the salt warnings are way overblown and that there’s not enough research to prove that even if it does raise blood pressure a bit that salt consumption causes heart disease deaths.

So who should care about consuming way too much salt? Just about everyone, according to health watchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who report that 70% of U.S. adults should limit sodium intake.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend healthy adults consume no more than 2300 milligrams of sodium (about one teaspoon of salt) per day. A lower limit of 1,500 mg per day is recommended for adults with high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, the over 50s, and all African-American adults.

FYI: most of us consume around 4000 milligrams of sodium a day (about two teaspoons).
Fish tacos and a Margarita with salt on the rim! Just don't lick the whole rim.

Cut Salt, Not Flavor

A big challenge for restaurants is that creating foods lower in fat and calories often means adding flavor with other ingredients such as sauces and salty spice blends which are often high in sodium. Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods list sodium content to help you keep track. Some chain restaurants provide sodium information on their websites. But, in general when dining out you're often on your own.

  • The main source of sodium in the diet is salt or sodium chloride, with 2, 325 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon. Most salt comes from processed foods such as salad dressings, soups, cheeses, baked goods and snack foods. So cut back on portions or choose lower sodium versions; there are many better tasting ones on the market today.
Hot chiles, citrus, herbs, hot sauces add big flavor so you can use just a little salt.

  • Taste buds adjust. Scientists who study taste have found that when you cut back on salt you get used to it in about three weeks. You may even discover the real flavor of foods!

    A squeeze of tart lemon brightens flavors so you don't need as much  salt.  
  • Note that pickles, cheese, smoked meats, gravies, sauces, salad dressings, barbecue sauces, soy sauce and broths are usually high in sodium so use sparingly. A tablespoon of soy sauce, for instance, contains 1,000 mg sodium. Hot sauces are often sodium free; read the labels.
  • Ask the server for help. Request that foods be prepared without added salt, or ask for sauces and salad dressings on the side. For low-sodium dressings, try lemon, lime or a splash of vinegar. Get to know the delicious difference between the taste of red wine, sherry, rice wine, balsamic and cider vinegars.

  • Look for menu items you can season at the table, such as a baked potato instead of mashed potatoes. Surface salt, such as a light shake on scrambled eggs or fresh sliced tomatoes, can give you the salt flavor hit you crave with just a small sprinkling. Even if those who don’t worry about salt and their health must agree that too much salt in a dish unpleasantly overpowers the other flavors.
  • Upgrade your saltshaker. Sea salt (which by weight contains the same amount of sodium as regular salt) is often brighter and livelier in flavor so you can use less salt to season foods. Amy Myrdal, registered dietitian with the Culinary Institute of America’s campus in Napa Valley notes that all salts are not alike, “Kosher Salt which is very soft and fluffy has granules that melt quickly on the tongue and 1 teaspoon contains only 1120 milligrams of sodium compared to regular table salt with 2,360 milligrams.”

  • Eat more spinach, cantaloupe, oranges and other fruits and vegetables. They’re naturally low in sodium and are excellent sources of the mineral potassium, which acts as the healthy counter-balance to sodium in body fluid regulation. Salsas made with fresh fruit and vegetables are a great way to add healthy flavors to foods.

Carolyn O'Neil, is a registered dietitian and co-author of  "The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!"  Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com

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