Summer 2013 - Spice Alternatives to Salt
Herbs give foods healthy flavor and flourish
If you’re among the 90 percent of Americans who consume too much sodium on a daily basis, you might be surprised to find out where that salt is coming from.
Salt does serve its purpose in our diets. It is a vital micronutrient that helps regulate blood pressure, blood volume, acid-base balance, and it is essential in helping the nerves and muscles of the body function properly.
But the amount needed is substantially lower than what the average adult consumes.
“The body only needs about 180-500 mg of sodium per day to perform necessary body functions,” said Kelly Washington, a clinical dietician at WakeMed.
According to CDC statistics, most adults consume 3,000-4,000 mg of sodium per day, when, according to Dr. Senthil Sundaram, of WakeMed Heart & Vascular, we should limit our daily intake to 1,500 mg or less.
Excessive salt intake can cause serious health issues over time.
“Salt has a significant impact on the cardiovascular system. It perpetuates hypertension, which can precipitate congestive heart failure episodes,” said Dr. Sundaram. “People who take in excessive sodium typically see fluid gain, weight gain, trouble controlling preexisting hypertension, shortness of breath and heart failure.”
Heart failure is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, a statistic that likely is directly correlated to excessive sodium intake.
Though some people are more sensitive to salt than others, Dr. Sundaram says, “you can’t predict who’s going to be responsive and who isn’t. All adults, even those that don’t have heart problems, need to limit their intake.”
For those who experience symptoms of excessive salt intake, cutting back the amount of salt in the diet can be challenging, but rewarding.
“It depends on the symptom they are experiencing. For something like hypertension, you can see a result in a few weeks; for edema, it can be less than a couple weeks.”
More Is Not Better
Processed food is the number one source for hidden sodium in the average diet. Simply preparing foods at home with fresh or minimally processed ingredients can lessen your sodium intake.
“Stay away from processed food. Stay away from canned food. Look at the label and make sure you’re multiplying the sodium by the number of servings,” said Dr. Sundaram.
Reading the label and accounting for the serving size is an important part of maintaining a low-sodium diet. A can of soup that has 400 mg of sodium might seem like a reasonable choice, but if the can holds two servings, you’re actually ingesting 800 mg of sodium — half of Dr. Sundaram’s recommendation in one bowl.
Salting food and using salt while cooking can also rack up the sodium levels quickly. A pinch or two of salt in a pasta dish, or a shake of salt over a meal that was already salted while cooking, can put your daily intake well above the recommended amount.
“For visualization, one teaspoon of table salt has 2,300 mg of sodium,” said Washington.
Make a Change — Spice it Up!
Matthew Scofield, executive chef at Sitti, a Lebanese restaurant in downtown Raleigh, values the role salt plays in cooking, but encourages seasoning food with other common spices to help lessen sodium levels without losing flavor.
“The ‘role’ of salt in cooking is to enhance the natural flavors of the food. In Lebanese cuisine however, salt, which was once a very lucrative branch of commerce during the Ottoman era, takes a back seat to the fresh ingredients that provide amazing flavor by themselves,” Scofield said.
“Mixed spices such as allspice or cinnamon, clove, coriander and cumin, just to name a few, are some of my favorites. Za’atar, a blend of sesame seed, oregano, thyme and sumac, is also one of my favorites and one we use at Sitti,” he said.
“Fresh-squeezed lemon juice, whether used to finish a sautéed dish or mixed with olive oil as a dressing or for marinating, can do wonders for spicing things up a bit. Vinegars, like lemon juice, can be used to enhance flavors by providing acidity.”
“Mrs. Dash is also a great salt substitute that uses a blend of herbs and spices,” said Washington. “Avoid any substitute with salt in the name, such as garlic salt — it will contain sodium.”
From Bland to Wham!
Acclimating taste buds to a change in diet can take some time, but when it comes to sodium, the payoff for making this simple change can mean significant improvements in health.
“The biggest challenge is the change in taste,” said Washington. “It will take a while for your taste buds to accept a more bland taste, but if you stick with it long enough, you should get accustomed to the new taste. Herbs and spices will help give your food flavor without the extra sodium.”
Scofield adds, “So many people have heavy hands when adding salt, missing the balance and completely ruining these fresh flavors.”