The government is calling on food companies and restaurateurs to cut sodium levels. The goal: preventing health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke linked to regularly consuming too much salt. However, you don’t have to wait for those gradual, modest adaptations to happen to make healthy changes in your own diet.
Public Health Goals
On Oct. 13, the Food and Drug Administration issued voluntary sodium reduction goals for commercially processed, packaged and prepared foods. Encompassing 163 food categories, the FDA guidance provides short-term sodium reduction targets for food manufacturers, chain restaurants and food service operators.
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“Although many consumers may want to reduce their sodium intake, about 70% of the sodium we eat comes from packaged, processed and restaurant foods, making it challenging to limit sodium,” according to the FDA statement.
Over the next 2.5 years, the aim is to decrease U.S. consumers’ average sodium intake from about 3,400 milligrams to 3,000 mg per day — roughly a teaspoon less. That sodium ceiling still exceeds the 2,300 mg daily intake recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for people ages 14 and over.
With some kids as well as adults already showing ill effects of unhealthy diets including high blood pressure, reducing dietary salt is important for the entire family.
“We always knew that a lot of the sodium was coming from packaged, processed and prepared foods,” says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian based in the Los Angeles area and the author of books on plant-based eating and the Plant-Powered Dietitian blog. “So, the FDA seems to be putting focus on that because it’s so impactful.”
What You Can Do
Nutrition experts suggest steps you can take now while buying, preparing and ordering food to reduce how much salt you eat without missing it.
Salt-Savvy Grocery Shopping
So many choices, so many sodium-laden foods. Grocery shopping is the starting point for managing how much salt you and your family eat:
— Read the back label. “I encourage people to be really label-savvy,” says Vahista Ussery, a registered dietitian nutritionist, chef and founder of To Taste, a culinary nutrition consulting and education company. Rather than picking up the first item, look at products’ back labels to compare nutrition facts, not hype. “Manufacturers can put really misleading lingo at the front of the package,” says Ussery, pointing out that ‘halo’ words like ‘organic’ don’t necessarily mean an item is low in sodium.
— Find go-to products. It can be time-consuming to check the label of every single product when you’re shopping, Palmer notes. Instead, experiment a little with products you frequently use, such as pasta sauce, tomato soup or snacks to find the lower-salt version you like. By choosing favorites, she says, “You don’t have to do a lot of homework each time.”
— Consider daily values. The nutrition facts panel actually gives two numbers for nutrients like sodium. First is the amount of sodium in milligrams per serving (180 mg, for instance). The second number is “% Daily Value” (7%, for instance). That lets you tally how big of a bite a single item would take out of your daily sodium limit. “A general rule of thumb is: If something is 20% or higher in the daily value, that’s a product that’s pretty high” in sodium or another nutrient, Palmer says.
— Give reduced-salt items a chance. Food manufacturers are wary about labeling products ‘low-salt’ because consumers often think ‘bad taste,’ Palmer says. “Don’t just assume it’s not going to taste good,” she advises.
— Watch out for certain sodium sources. Frozen entrees, store-bought breads and processed or deli meats can contain significant sodium levels, Palmer cautions.
— Avoid self-evident salt. Visibly salty pretzels or items like sea-salt potato chips give you all the info you need without even checking the label.
— Put whole foods in your cart. Start out in the produce department and fill up on fruits and vegetables, which are naturally low in sodium and contain healthy potassium.
Cutting Salt at Home
Your own kitchen and pantry are great places for practicing salt management:
— Get cooking. “The more people learn to cook, and cook from scratch, that really allows you to control the amount of salt you put into your food,” Ussery says.
— Season without salt. With a well-stocked spice rack, food you prepare never has to be bland. “Learning to rely on spices and herbs, and using acidic ingredients like lemon and lime juice and balsamic vinegar, can all help you season and flavor your food before (turning) to salt,” Ussery says. Spices like turmeric can bring extra health benefits.
— Sprinkle instead of spooning. Adding a pinch of salt instead of the entire teaspoon that a recipe calls for is a simple trick for reducing salt. Some chefs sprinkle salt at the end of cooking an entree to get a bigger bang and higher sensation of salt rather than mixing into the food, Palmer says.
— Build flavors gradually. Another strategy is to build flavor with small amounts of salt and pepper during each step of the culinary process. “I find if you season throughout cooking with salt, you end up using less than if you wait until the very end,” Ussery says.
— Think acidic. If you’re cooking a dish and find it tastes flat, don’t immediately reach for the salt shaker, Ussery suggests. “A lot of times what’s really missing is the acidic element,” she says. “So a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of vinegar helps to brighten those flavors, very similar to what salt does.”
— Snack mindfully. Make popcorn from scratch with the kernels, for a healthy, whole-grain snack. Ussery also recommends fruits and veggies for snacks, and you can get creative. “Combine a nut butter with some fruit,” she suggests. Nuts and seeds make great snacks in themselves, she says — just keep an eye on sodium content. “There’s the whole gamut: You can find them from unsalted to pretty heavily salted.” If you must have potato chips, have a smaller serving but munch on some celery as well, she suggests. That way, you’re mixing a vegetable in and still getting that crunch.
— Focus on potassium. In contrast to salt, increasing potassium in your diet actually reduces your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. “We really need to focus on how much potassium we eat, because sodium and potassium work together in our bodies,” Ussery says. Fruits and veggies are rich in potassium.
— Look into lower-salt eating plans. Following certain diets or eating plans will help you keep sodium levels in check. The DASH diet, which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension, is a great choice for emphasizing low-salt, healthy foods. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to be moderate in sodium, as well, Palmer notes. “It’s based on whole, minimally processed foods,” she says. “And plant-based diets can be low in sodium.”
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Watching Salt While Eating Out
Whether you’re dining out or ordering carryout, restaurant meals can contain hidden sodium. Here’s what to do:
— Check restaurant websites in advance. While larger chain restaurants now post calorie counts directly on the menu, you’ll have to dig a little deeper for nutrients like sodium or saturated fats. However, smaller, local restaurants aren’t required to reveal that information, Ussery notes. So you may have to be proactive in other ways.
— Keep an eye on portions. “I would be very mindful of portion sizes at a restaurant,” Ussery says, both in general and in terms of limiting specific nutrients like sodium.
— Talk to your server. An experienced server might be able to steer you away from higher-salt foods on the menu.
— Ask for dressing and sauces on the side. Serving dressing on the side instead of mixed into a salad is now common with so many calorie-conscious diners. It also helps you control salt consumption. Or, you can ask for balsamic vinegar and oil to mix a simple salad dressing on your own, Ussery says. Sauces in restaurants can also be high in sodium, so you may want to ask for sauce on the side, as well.
— Order less pizza. Pizza is like the perfect storm for sodium. “Pizza is a huge offender,” Palmer says. “Because salt is in the crust, it’s in the sauce, it’s in the toppings. It can be dramatically high. And people eat a lot of pizza in America. If you’re eating it once or twice a week, that whole meal can be really high in sodium.”
For Ussery, a take-home message is: “Just try to get into the kitchen to cook more.” That puts you in charge of everything including sodium, calories and saturated fat, she says. “It’s really such a good way to take control of your health.”
Palmer says you can train your taste buds to crave less salt. “If people could just realize: There’s so much flavor in food without the salt, if you’re eating a colorful diet and using spices, herbs and citrus,” she says. “So you can use nature’s seasonings that are good for you to help you reduce salt and learn to really love food for what it is — without the salt kind of masking it.”
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