By Shelby Keys

You read our blog last week, you’re watching your sodium intake (or at least let me assume you’re trying), you’re cutting back on processed foods, you’re doing everything right…or are you?

sodium graphicIf you’ve switched to using salt substitutes, a low sodium table salt alternative marketed to those with high blood pressure, you may be doing more harm than good. Salt substitutes provide the taste benefit of salt, but are comprised of a substance known as potassium chloride (as opposed to sodium chloride in salt).

You guessed it! This substance is a potassium-based salt, and while potassium in general is not dangerous, high levels in the body could lead to hyperkalemia (high potassium). This condition can pose a problem for those with kidney diseases who may have a difficult time flushing out the excess potassium as well as for those who are on medications that increase the concentration of potassium in the body. Those taking an ACE inhibitor or with diabetes take caution.  Symptoms include slow heartbeat, weak pulse, and nausea, to name a few.

But, not to worry! There are better options available. Herbs and spices such as lemon juice, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, paprika, basil, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, sage, and extracts can all enrich flavor, while perhaps even adding some health benefits. The Harvard School of Public Health suggests that these substances may protect against cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.

Using these zesty alternatives is a great way to season food, turning any dish into a mouthwatering masterpiece. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend an intake of no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (about one teaspoon of salt). This guideline is easily exceeded by most Americans. So adopting a “spiced-up” life can result in a healthier one!

Don’t know where to start?

The good news is that our taste buds are extremely adaptable and salt is an acquired taste! Therefore, you can reduce those cravings by taking small, gradual steps in reducing sodium consumption by choosing healthier, lower sodium foods over the next few days, weeks, or months. As you make the change, your taste buds, heart, and body will be happy, and you may find yourself becoming more satisfied with lower-salt fare as you opt for spices and herbs for flavor.

Check out the HeartBright Foundation’s tips for food combinations, which include bay leaf with beef, cinnamon with carrots, onion with corn, and rosemary for salads and soups. Just keep in mind that dried herbs provide a more concentrated flavor than fresh!

These recipes from The Culinary Institute of America use herbs and spices to boost flavor. Recipes include citrus salad with ginger lime dressing, portabella steak sandwiches, strawberry rhubarb crisp, and baked ricotta. Who wouldn’t give up sodium for these scrumptious foods? 

Sodium Control

nutrition labelTo work on sodium reduction and discover where the culprits of added sodium lie, it’s important to read nutrition labels. The Nutrition Facts Label provides information on the sodium content of foods, with a guideline of 5 percent of the Daily Value (DV) or less being a food item that is considered low in sodium, while 20 percent or more is considered a high sodium item. You can also go by The Institutes of Medicine and the Massachusetts Food Standards recommendation that each serving of food have less than 290 mg of sodium, or less than 490 total mg of sodium for each meal.

Keep in mind, the nutrition label lists information based on 1 serving and oftentimes packages can have up to 10 servings, so be cautious of consuming multiple servings!  Some of the biggest food sources of sodium include baked goods, bread, cheese, and deli meats, prepackage frozen meals, and soup. For more tips of reducing sodium intake, check out these suggestions.

Fat, Sugar, and Salt Substitutions

Herbs and spices can also act as substitutions for sugar and fat as well! Just another reason to add them into your culinary toolbox. To reduce sugar in the diet, try these spices as a tasty alternative: cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, allspice, cardamom, and ginger. For more common substitutions, and flavor and food combinations check out this handy tip sheet. You can also find general rules for amounts, storage guidelines, and when to add them here.

Shelby is a dietetic intern at the Commission.