Salt and Flavor Savvy

By Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD

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

Talking about spicing things up: Government health officials have declared sodium in table salt as a nutritional no-no and 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 has shown that too much sodium is associated with high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.

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

More Than Most Spices
Salt Must Be Used with Caution

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 (CDC) who recommend that 70 percent of adults in the U.S. should limit sodium intake.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines advise that 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 and kidney disease. This particularly concerns people over 50 and African-Americans. Most Americans consume around 4000 milligrams of sodium a day (about two teaspoons).

Cut salt, not flavor
A big challenge for restaurants is to create foods that are lower in fat and calories. This 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 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. Cut back on portion sizes or choose lower sodium versions.

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

• 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. In any case, read the labels.

• Ask your server for help. Request your food to 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 items on the menu you can season at the table such as 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 you crave with just a small sprinkling. Even people who don’t worry about salt so much agree that too much of it can overpower 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, a Registered Dietitian with the Culinary Institute of America 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 one 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 a healthy counter-balance to sodium in body fluid regulation. Salsas made with fresh fruit and vegetables are also a great way to add healthy flavors to foods.

Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD is a best-selling author and television personality. As a journalist with expertise in nutrition and weight control, she served as executive producer, anchor and senior correspondent for CNN.

Her weekly newspaper column, “Healthy Eating Out,” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides a steady stream of nutrition advice. In addition, she works as the lifestyles editor for Flavors Magazine, a quarterly magazine on food, wine and culture. She co-authored the best-selling book “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” As a respected authority in her field, Carolyn has collaborated on national nutrition campaigns with the food industry and served as the national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For more information, please visit

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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