Salt…yet one more thing we eat too much of!
Salt is being hit hard with new recommendations about to come out suggesting we consume 1,500mg of sodium a day or less. This new recommendation is half of what the average American eats. In addition, about 80% of the sodium in our diet is from processed food, so cutting the sodium may continue to prove difficult. My hope is that these new recommendations actually spur the food industry to cut the salt in processed foods more than they have already done.
Salt actually serves many functions, such as preserving food and improving flavor. There are also many types of salt showing up in the spice aisle these days. The trick is to use them judiciously and only when most important for flavor enhancement. Here is a sampling of common salts in your grocer’s aisle.
Table salt: Table salt is mined from underground salt deposits and includes a small amount of calcium silicate (an anti-caking agent to prevent clumping). Table salt has fine granules, a sharp taste and dissolves quickly, making it the preferred salt of bakers.
Sea salt: Sea salt is harvested from evaporated seawater with little to no additional processing. It contains intact minerals from the water it came from, which flavor and color the salt slightly. Remember that the unique flavors disappear when the salt is used in cooking or is dissolved.
Kosher salt: Usually made without additives, a bit milder in flavor and with a flaky crystalline structure, Kosher salt is either mined or from evaporated sea water and is not iodine treated.
Iodized salt: Iodized salt was introduced in the U.S. in the 1920s to help decrease goiters and other iodine deficiency diseases. Concentrated food sources of iodine include yogurt, sea vegetables, strawberries, milk, eggs, and mozzarella cheese. Iodine levels in many foods depend on soil quality and can very greatly from region to region.
Flavored salt: Garlic salt, onion salt, mixed up salt, etc. are all examples of flavored salts. In general I recommend using the unsalted version--for example, garlic powder instead of garlic salt. This way you can add as much of the desired flavor as you wish without going overboard on salt or sodium. Mixed up salt may not have a salt free alternative; just be aware of the salt content and use a light hand.
Spices with salt: Some spices also contain salt that you would not expect. For example, some chili powders contain added salt. Check the label when you purchase seasonings and go for the sodium free versions. This way you can control the sodium level.
Light salt and salt substitute: Light salt is generally a mixture of salt (sodium chloride) and potassium chloride. Light salt is iodized and usually contains a free flowing agent. Salt substitute is a potassium chloride product designed for sodium restricted diets. You should only consume light salt and salt substitute if instructed to do so by a physician.
Specialty or finishing salts: These are the top-of-the-line salts, and they carry the price tag to prove it. The cost alone should keep you from cooking with them, but admittedly they are wonderful when used in “finishing” a dish. Basically that means they are sprinkled on right before serving so that the unique flavors remain intact. Most of these salts have interesting crystal formations that provide a pleasing textural experience as well as flavor experience. I have heard the most about fleur de sol (or grey salt) but my personal favorite is Murray River pink salt. I love it on edamame or lightly steamed asparagus. It is actually not hard to limit …my budget dictates limiting use of this pleasing salt, and as always, too much of a good thing is usually not a good thing. These salts can be found in specialty stores or sections of a larger super market.
Eighty percent of our salt intake comes from processed food. Since we all need to cut down on sodium, it is a good idea to know what foods contain the most salt. Some foods obviously contain salt, like cans of soup, frozen pizza and bags of flavored chips. However, there are several places where salt is found that may surprise many people. This is a short list of foods that contain more salt than you might suspect.
Cereal: We are used to talking sugar and fiber when we talk cereal, but today the focus is on sodium. Many cereals have 150-300mg sodium, which can really add up. Milk also contains 120mg sodium per cup.
Look for cereals with 150mg sodium or less. Some (but not all) examples include:
Bread: We are a sandwich nation, which makes the sodium content of bread important. With 200mg or more per slice, a sandwich yields 400mg sodium, and that is before we factor in the lunchmeat and cheese. Here is a sampling of breads with less sodium than average:
Salad dressing: Healthy salads…yum, lots of colorful vegetables, delicious! But wait, what is in that salad dressing? Salt! Many brands have about 250mg sodium, I have even seen one with sodium as high as 500mg per two tablespoon serving. Many of the sweet or fruit type salad dressings will have less sodium (light raspberry, honey mustard, and some red wine vinaigrettes). Read the labels and choose the ones with the least amount of sodium, or make your own.
Diet tea: Now I must admit, I did not discover sodium in diet teas personally; I read about it in one of my nutrition newsletters. So I just had to see for myself, and, sure enough, there are about 80mg of sodium in one serving of diet tea beverage. Now that is not a large amount of sodium compared to other products we have mentioned, but the fact that it is a beverage is what makes it unique. I know there are people who drink multiple servings of diet tea each day and can easily rack up 250mg or more sodium from drinks alone.
There are many other places sodium is hidden in our foods, both in the grocery store and in restaurant food. Focusing on fruits and vegetables can help reduce sodium as well as limiting processed foods.
The Bottom Line: Continue to read the nutrition facts panel (not just the front of the label) and choose the food with the least amount of sodium. Eventually the food manufacturers will get the message from both the consumer and the health authorities to continue reducing sodium in packaged foods.