Sodium – the best-known part of salt – is needed for health, but most people get far too much. This excess has been linked to chronic disease, as well as bloating that can exaggerate the look of being overweight. Fortunately, many options are out there that bring out the flavor of food just as well as high-sodium salt – but with many times more benefits.
In general, we tend to add less table salt to our food than is found in processed, canned, and pickled foods, which account for well over half the sodium in the modern western diet – and of course table salt is considered less risky healthwise than the most common processed salt additive, monosodium glutamate, or ‘MSG’. But for people who are particularly sensitive to any sodium, finding options to cut corners everywhere can help.
If you salt foods automatically, try to wean yourself from large amounts. Every time you think to add some, try adding a little less or go for an alternative. Look for lower sodium versions of products you eat frequently, and check the labels to be sure the taste isn’t made up for with added fats or artificial flavors. But the best method of all is to make up for the taste yourself – by maximizing other flavors that can be even better for your health.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs, spices, and similar seasonings, such as garlic and ginger, not only can keep you away from too much sodium, but they have health benefits of their own. Supermarkets and farmers markets tend to have a good selection of fresh herbs, spices, and other seasonings, which can provide an advantage over dried, but dried is definitely on-the-table. There really are no better or worse choices among the actual plants – they’re all good.
Plants are naturally high in antioxidants, often known as ‘phytochemicals’ or ‘phytonutrients.’ They include polyphenols, flavonoids, catechins, and more. Herbs, spices, and related seasonings high in these include the following:
Vinegars and prepared mustards count here, too – even the flavored ones that don’t have added mayonnaise or sugars. A vinegar-garlic blend is a popular way to season raw vegetables to cut back on high-sodium pickles. Dry wines also make excellent choices, and when they are cooked, they are even lower in calories.
Many of these work together in synergy – meaning their activity together is stronger than the sum of their individual activities combined.
Luckily, some acknowledged phytochemical synergies that support health can make for delicious dishes. Some of these combinations are well-represented in cuisine famous for health benefits, such as that of the Mediterranean region, India, and the Far East – and are found in some of our most popular recipes:
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as asparagus, broccoli, and greens, with mustard (Brussels Sprouts with Mustard Sauce)
- Fatty or ‘oily’ fish, such as tuna or salmon, with garlic, soy, or turmeric (Tuna Steaks with Chunky Tomato Sauce)
- Cocoa as in chocolate and fruits such as raspberries (Cocoa-Pearberry Nut Nirvana)
- Turkey or beef and rosemary or red wine (Creamed Turkey and Tomatoes)
- Garlic, onions, and ginger (Baked Fish in Tomato Base Sauce)
We all know regular table salt, and some have heard of sea salt. But there is so much more out there in the ‘natural salt’ market, and some are so much better at bringing out flavors that you can get away with using less.
- Black salt – sodium-based salts often rich in sulphurous compounds (‘kala namak’) with a sulphurous flavor that is often added to egg substitutes to bring out the characteristic flavor, or activated charcoal (‘lava salt’); these salts have been used traditionally in various countries to aid the digestive system
- Seaweed salts – salt with microalgae or ground seaweeds mixed in, sometimes with sesame seeds, which offer their own health benefits
- Salt pan salts – considered to be a level about the usual ‘sea salts,’ which have been the topic of some controversy of the value of their content vs. the risks
- Himalayan salt – believed to offer the balance of minerals most recognized by the body
However, natural salts are still high in sodium, and should be used sparingly.
If you find cutting back on salt is too difficult, salt substitutes can be a big help. These can be either blends of herbs and spices – do check the label to be sure your choice is sodium-free or at least very low in sodium – or they can be ‘salts’ themselves – just not entirely from sodium.
Premixed seasoning blends – comprising either simple herbs and spices, or mixes for soups, sauces, or dressing, including low-sodium versions – are considered good options, especially those labeled ‘organic’ and ‘all natural’.
Examples of salt substitutes that are themselves a form of ‘salt’ include ‘low-salt,’ potassium chloride, potassium iodide, or even other minerals, such as magnesium and calcium. What’s great about these is that not only do they lower your sodium intake, but the particular minerals chosen to replace it are beneficial specifically in the areas where sodium is a risk. The purer substitutes tend to be a little bitter, which is why blends with a small amount of sodium are the most popular.
An excellent choice for adding often highly desirable smoke flavoring without loading up on salt or risking exposure to carcinogens in your food is ‘liquid smoke’. This is the condensation of water exposed to the burning of flavoring woods – including applewood, hickory, and mesquite. These products can be found sodium-free (be sure to check the label!), and a very little bit goes a very long way, so use it sparingly in a marinade or sauce.
To avoid the problems with readymade sauces and dressings (even the dry mixes) such as artificial ingredients and less desirable oils such as corn and cottonseed – as well as more salt and sugar than is necessary – is to see which of them you can make yourself. Blending herbs, spices, pureed tomatoes, milks, flavor extracts, and good oils to make the many, many excellent recipes out there for just about any sauce you want. You can actually turn a major downside of a food into a huge health advantage, as so many of the individual ingredients are naturally good for you, and some are even better in combination.
If you’re trying to cut back on sodium, you’re on the right track to health. You certainly don’t need to give it up altogether, but right-sizing your intake should be a goal that you can reach gradually – probably without even noticing it, if done right. With the right seasonings, you can maximize flavor and health potential by both cutting back on sodium and adding powerful compounds that bring out the best in food.