How does this sound for a quick breakfast:
A single pancake, topped with 1 tablespoon each of reduced-fat tub margarine and reduced-calorie pancake syrup. Two slices of Canadian bacon. An 8-ounce glass of skim milk. A cup of coffee with 1 tablespoon of half-and-half.
Congratulations. You just ate 1,254 milligrams of sodium before you even left the house.
If you’re older than 51, an African American of any age or if you have kidney disease, diabetes or high blood pressure – about half the U.S. population – that’s almost your recommended dose for the day. You have 246 milligrams left to get through the rest of the day. That’s just a little more than the amount in two plain slices of Nature’s Own 100 percent whole-grain bread.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its new Dietary Guidelines for Americans in January, the firmer recommendation for who should lower their sodium was eye-catching:
Reduce your daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams, or 1,500 milligrams if you fit into any of those risk categories. Americans average 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day.
You might groan, but Cheryl Kuhta-Sutter, a registered dietitian with Presbyterian Heart & Wellness in Charlotte, N.C., is delighted.
“It’s time,” she says. “It’s been time. Instead of general guidelines, we need to be a little more specific. But it’s going to be a change – 1,500 milligrams is quite a switch from 2,300.”
Despite its role as the new dietary Simon Legree, salt is our friend. In cooking, it enhances flavors, preserves foods and even inhibits microbial growth. Without salt, bread rises too fast and cookies don’t taste as sweet.
In our bodies, it regulates fluids, makes our nerves and muscles function, helps us digest food and carries nutrients in and out of cells.
Along with water, it’s the one thing we can’t eliminate from our diets. We can live without fruits, vegetables or meat. But we can’t live without salt.
Still, too much salt can quickly become too much of a good thing. A diet high in sodium can aggravate high blood pressure and eventually heart disease.
Sheryl Forbis of Carrboro, N.C., got a first-hand look at that. Several years ago, her husband, Dick, discovered he had borderline high blood pressure. Dick Forbis, a retired chemist who had worked in pharmaceutical research, had no desire to take blood-pressure medications.
So Sheryl tackled salt. She came up with her own formulas for things such as dressing and ketchup, to avoid the sodium in commercial versions. She started cooking with more herbs and less salt.
Within two weeks, Dick’s blood pressure was back in the safe range. Today, the Forbises have a hard time eating out – everything tastes too salty, she says.
“Your palate gets used to not having the salt,” she says. “It didn’t take very long. A couple of weeks.”
They’ve always gardened and used fresh foods. But Sheryl Forbis also shops carefully.
“You’re going to eat less salt if you eat from the outside edges of the store,” she says. “I don’t use a lot of packaged food. There’s almost nothing on the shelves, unless it says no-salt-added, that I buy. I use coupons just like everybody else, but I read labels.”
Susan Batten, a chef-instructor at Johnson & Wales University, says that appreciation of what things really taste like is a key to lowering salt in cooking. Her students come to school with their taste buds already turned up for salt and sugar from snacks and convenience foods.
“Salt is kind of an acquired taste, so you can unacquire the taste,” she says. “If you cut back on salt, you need to enhance the flavor by using other natural flavor enhancers.” Fresh citrus juices, such as lime or lemon, or different flavors of vinegar help replace salt.
She also teaches students to use cooking techniques to build flavor, such as pan-searing, braising and stewing. And learn to season properly, she says: If you taste salt, you’ve used too much.
The easiest way to reduce your salt intake is to cook for yourself, says dietitian Cheryl Kuhta-Sutter. Making a weekly meal plan will really help, she says.
If you do most of your cooking from scratch, you may not need to worry that much about salt. According to the Mayo Clinic, 77 percent of sodium comes from packaged and prepared foods.
Still, it’s a rare kitchen that doesn’t use some prepared ingredients. And salt can come from surprising places. In a recent survey of supermarket products, we found some startling numbers. For instance, Grey Poupon Dijon mustard has a whopping 120 milligrams of sodium in a teaspoon, compared to 55 milligrams in a teaspoon of French’s Classic Yellow. Since most recipes with Dijon use at least 1 tablespoon, that’s 360 milligrams from a single ingredient.
Most people know canned soups and vegetables can be high unless you use no-salt-added versions. But check out the spaghetti sauces: 510 milligrams in a 1/2 cup of Ragu Organic or Bertolli Traditional Tomato & Basil, and 550 milligrams in Newman’s Own Marinara.
Even with healthful products, you have to read the labels carefully: The reduced-fat or reduced-calorie version of a product usually has more sodium than the regular version.
READ THOSE LABELS
Sodium can hide in products that would surprise you. Skim milk, for instance, has up to 120 milligrams of sodium in 1 cup. Here are sodium amounts we found in a recent shopping excursion. For a helpful list of sodium levels in common foods, search online for the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17, or use this shortcut: http://bit.ly/f51MhT
• Fiber One original, 1/2 cup, 105 mg
• Cheerios, 1 cup, 160 mg
• Special K, 1 cup, 220 mg
• Total Raisin Bran, 1 cup, 230mg
• Seltzer, 8 ounces, 0 mg
• Tonic, 8 ounces, 25 mg
• Coca-Cola, 8 ounces, 30 mg
• Schweppes club soda, 8 ounces, 65 mg
• Canada Dry club soda, 8 ounces, 80 mg
• Triscuits, 6 crackers, 180 mg
• Triscuits Hint of Salt, 6 crackers, 50 mg
• Goldfish cheddar-flavored, 55 pieces, 250 mg
• Goldfish pretzel-flavored, 55 pieces, 430 mg
Soups and broths:
• Rachael Ray Stock In a Box, chicken-flavored, 1 cup, 480 mg
• Swanson Natural Goodness chicken stock, 1 cup, 570 mg
• Swanson 100 percent Natural chicken stock, 1 cup, 860 mg
• Campbell’s Healthy Request Chunky Chicken & Noodle, 1 cup, 410 mg
• Campbell’s Select Harvest Chicken With Egg Noodles, 1 cup, 480 mg
• Campbell’s Reduced Sodium Chicken and Noodle, 1 cup prepared, 660 mg
• Campbell’s Chicken & Noodle, 1 cup prepared, 890 mg
Condiments & Dressings:
• French’s Classic Yellow Mustard, 1 teaspoon, 55 mg
• Grey Poupon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon, 120 mg
• Heinz ketchup, 1 tablespoon, 160 mg
• Duke’s mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon, 75 mg
• Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon, 90 mg
• Miracle Whip Salad Dressing, 1 tablespoon, 105 mg
• Hellmann’s Light, 1 tablespoon, 125 mg
• Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, 2 tablespoons, 260 mg
• Ken’s Steak House Ranch dressing, 2 tablespoons, 310 mg
• Kraft Ranch dressing, 2 tablespoons, 370 mg
HOW SHE CUT THE SALT
Sheryl Forbis taught herself tricks for cutting salt when her husband needed to reduce his blood pressure:
Put away the salt shaker and train yourself not to add salt at the table.
Avoid products labeled “lower sodium.” They won’t be as low in sodium as products labeled “low sodium” or “no salt added.”
Make your own soups and freeze them rather than use canned soups. She adds 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar to meat-based soups to replace the flavor of salt.
For a ketchup substitute, mix tomato paste with a pinch of brown sugar and a little cider vinegar.
Flavor meats with wine, fruit or herbs.
Since cheese is high in sodium (unless it’s a low-sodium cheese), use it as a garnish rather than the focus of a dish.
Since prepared salsa is high in sodium, make salsa with a few chopped tomatoes, a garlic clove, onion, sweet and jalapeno peppers, fruit (fresh peach or pineapple), a squirt of lime juice or balsamic vinegar and dashes of cumin and chili powder.
No-Salt-Added Buttermilk Corn Bread
1 cup coarse-grind cornmeal (she uses Red Mill)
1/3 cup whole wheat flour (or fine corn meal for a gluten-free version)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup buttermilk
Mix together the dry ingredients. Whisk egg into buttermilk and add to dry ingredients. Pour into a greased 9-inch pie plate, an 8-inch square pan or a loaf pan.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes.
Note: She likes to put a tablespoon of unsalted butter in the pan and heat it as the oven preheats. Then she pours the batter on top to create a crispy edge to the crust.
Note: Skipping the salt means “it tastes like corn,” she says. However, baking soda, baking powder and buttermilk do contain sodium.
Source: From Sheryl Forbis of Carrboro, N.C.
Reduced-Sodium Ranch Dressing
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup nonfat Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup buttermilk or 1/2 cup sour cream
1 small clove garlic
4 stems of fresh chives
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons fresh sweet onion or green onion
1 teaspoon dried dillweed or 1 tablespoon fresh dill
Pulse in a processor until ingredients are chopped well but still show in the mixture. Let rest in refrigerator for a couple of hours to allow flavors to blend. Use as a dip or dressing for salad.
Source: From Sheryl Forbis of Carrboro.