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Less Sodium, Just as Much Flavor!

Sodium - What’s the Word?

The average American takes in about 3,400 mg of sodium each day. Yet the American Diabetes Association guidelines recommend that people with diabetes have 2,300 mg or less per day. (The same recommendation holds for the general population). If you have diabetes and hypertension (i.e. high blood pressure), you should be shooting for even less – closer to 1,500 mg per day.

It is often assumed that a lot of the sodium in our diets comes from overuse of the salt shaker. But in reality, only about 10% of our sodium intake is salt that we add at the table. The vast majority of sodium in the American diet actually comes from all of the processed and restaurant foods that we eat. Our current food supply is full of hidden sources of sodium, making it tough to meet the guidelines above. Read on to learn some simple tips for cutting back on sodium. You’ll also find a guide to flavoring foods without salt.

Simple Tips to Cut Back on Sodium

Turn your focus to fresh, less processed foods like vegetables, fruits, dried beans, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Whole grains that have been prepared without salt are also great choices (some examples are brown rice, wild rice, oats, quinoa, bulgur, and whole grain barley). In addition, frozen produce, fruit canned in juice, and canned vegetables without added salt are good, low-cost alternatives to fresh produce. Start by replacing some of the processed and restaurant foods in your diet with these foods to increase overall nutrient quality and reduce sodium.
 
Keep the Create Your Plate model in mind when planning meals. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables such as greens, tomatoes, carrots and more! Try a salad of greens with roasted beets and walnuts, a cucumber and tomato salad, a medley of roasted vegetables, or sautéed peppers and onions. Add herbs and spices for extra flavor instead of salt, and use a healthy cooking method such as roasting, grilling, steaming, or sautéing.

Cook at home with fresh ingredients for most meals versus eating out. A fast food cheeseburger, small order of fries, and a 16-ounce diet soda has about 950 mg of sodium. Even seemingly healthy dishes at a sit-down restaurant can be high in sodium. Though it has just 300 calories, the Weight Watchers® Grilled Jalapeno-Lime Shrimp at Applebees still has 2110 mg of sodium – enough for the entire day.

When you cook at home, you have more control over what goes into your food. Set aside time during the weekend to plan out your meals for the following week. When planning, think about what you have at home that needs to be eaten, and make a list of the groceries you’ll need to buy. Keep your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer stocked with lower-sodium options that could make a quick meal on nights when time is tight.

Know which foods are highest in sodium and limit them. Many condiments, pickled foods, cheese, canned goods, pasta and rice mixes, frozen/ready-prepared meals, salty snacks (i.e. chips and pretzels), and deli meats are high in sodium. Choose these foods in smaller portions. Some of them, like salty snacks and pasta and rice mixes, are usually low in nutrients so it’s best to limit them. Instead, make your own pasta dish at home or have vegetables and hummus for a snack.

Choose low- or reduced-sodium options when available! Check out the difference in sodium between original versus low-sodium varieties of several foods:

  • ½ cup canned diced tomatoes - 280 mg VS. ½ cup no salt added canned diced tomatoes – 30 mg
  • ½ cup canned black beans – 480 mg VS. ½ cup reduced-sodium canned black beans – 240 mg
    • You can also buy dried beans for less than 10 mg of sodium per half cup when cooked. Whenever you buy canned beans or other canned vegetables, always thoroughly rinse them to further reduce the sodium content.
  • ½ cup of rice mix (such as Rice A Roni) – 525 mg VS. ½ cup brown and wild rice – 3 mg
  • 2 ounces deli turkey – 440 mg VS. 2 ounces reduced-sodium deli turkey – 350 mg
  • ¼ cup salted mixed nuts – 100 mg VS. ¼ cup dry roasted unsalted nuts – 0 mg
  • 1 ounce potato chips – 100 mg VS. 3 cups air-popped popcorn, 1 small piece fresh fruit or ½ cup fresh veggies – all under 10 mg per serving
  • 2 tablespoons salad dressing from the store – 350 mg VS. 2 tablespoons homemade balsamic vinaigrette (1 T. olive oil, 1 T. balsamic vinegar, 1 t. part Dijon mustard, and freshly ground pepper to taste) – ~115 mg

The above tips are key strategies to start with if you need to cut back on sodium. Focus on choosing less processed foods, especially plant-based foods, and eating more at home. You can cut back even more by adding less salt when preparing meals. Check out our guide below to learn more about flavoring foods without salt.

Flavoring Foods Without Salt 

Looking for ways to flavor your food without salt? You actually have many options and you don’t have to be a seasoned cook to make tasty, low-sodium food at home. Here are a few ideas to get you started!

Keep a few commonly used spices and dried herbs on hand.

  • Dried basil is great for adding flavor to a low-sodium pasta sauce. You can also use it to season vegetables, fish, chicken, or lean meats like in our Spinach Pesto Chicken Salad Wrap.
  • Dried or fresh thyme is especially tasty when used to season fish filets but it also goes great with any meat, poultry, bean, or egg dish. You can sprinkle it (along with a little bit of olive oil) over vegetables or potatoes before roasting them in the oven. It also pairs well with lemon, like in this month’s recipe Lemon Thyme Frozen Yogurt.
  • Cumin is a common spice used in many different cuisines. Use it along with some chili powder and garlic powder to season chicken, ground meat, or vegetables for fajitas or tacos. It can also be added to chilis, curries, or stews. Try it in this month’s Eggplant and Chickpea Stew which uses a combination of cumin, cinnamon, and coriander.
  • Chili powder will add a kick to any dish. It’s actually a seasoning blend that includes dried chilis, garlic, oregano, and cumin. Add to it stews and chilis like our Veggie Chili, or use it in meat and veggies for fajitas. In many instances, it is used in combination with cumin and/or paprika like in our Chicken Joes recipe.
  • Dried or fresh rosemary is a strong herb that can be sprinkled on fish, chicken, or meats before grilling or roasting. It is also tasty on roasted potatoes. Our Fish Fillets with Fresh Rosemary is a quick and easy recipe that uses this herb.
  • Crushed red pepper flakes or ground red pepper such as cayenne will add heat to any dish. You don’t need a lot to add a kick. Use this in rubs, sauces, stews, and more.
  • Cinnamon compliments both sweet and savory dishes. Simply use it to top your toast or light yogurt, or stir it into your oatmeal with some toasted nuts. Use it in cooked fruit dishes such as our Cinnamon Roasted Pears, to make a tasty and healthy dessert. It can also be added to stews and chilis in combination with other spices.
  • Dried oregano is especially good in tomato-based dishes and is common in Italian cuisine. You can use it in soups or sprinkle it over vegetables before cooking. Try sprinkling it over pizza, pasta dishes, or garlic bread. 

*When choosing spice mixes or dried herb mixes, make sure that they are salt-free. Store these in a cool dark place to maximize their shelf-life.  Most of the time, you’ll want to use dried herbs toward the beginning of cooking so there is time for the flavor to release.

It’s also great to have some fresh herbs on hand. If you only plan to use a small amount of an herb, you can opt to buy some herbs in a jar or tube. These have a shelf life of several months when stored in the refrigerator. (You can also buy fresh ginger and minced garlic this way).

If you’re feeling adventurous, try growing some of your own herbs during the warmer months of the year. This can cut down on the cost of buying herbs at the store. Some common and versatile herbs to have on hand are:

  • Fresh basil can be tossed into a pasta dish toward the end of cooking or added to a side salad to liven it up. Try adding a few fresh basil leaves to a hummus and veggie wrap, tomato mozzarella Panini, or even a standard turkey sandwich. It’s also great when pureed into pesto and helps boost flavor in tomato-based dishes. Experiment with fresh basil by making our Tomato Basil Soup with Chicken.
  • Fresh cilantro is great addition to spicy foods. It has a citrusy undertone and pairs well with lime. Try it out for yourself with this month’s recipes Budget-Friendly Cilantro Lime Roasted Chicken or Cilantro Lime Quinoa.
  • Fresh mint is a very versatile herb. Use it to make iced or hot tea, add it to a grain salad with dried fruit and nuts, or toss it with fresh berries for a refreshing and healthy dessert. 
  • Fresh parsley can be used as a garnish for a bit of extra flavor or it can be used as a main ingredient. It lends a slight peppery, earthy flavor to any dish. Toss some fresh parsley into brown or wild rice with some lemon juice. It’s also a key ingredient in Mediterranean tabouleh. You can also add it to soups, pasta dishes, eggs, or salads. 
  • Fresh dill goes very well with fresh veggies like in our Corn, Tomato, Pea, and Dill Salad. It also pairs especially well with cucumbers, and it makes a great seasoning for salmon.

*If you have leftover herbs and need to use them before they go bad, use them to make a pesto. Just mix them in a food processor with some olive oil. You can also add some garlic, lemon or lime, and toasted nuts. Use the pesto as a topping for meats, a spread for sandwiches, a sauce for pasta, or a dip for veggies.

Use garlic and onions to enhance the flavor of your recipes. These can be added in their raw form for some foods, or they can be heated and cooked in olive oil and tossed with other ingredients like veggies, grains, beans, or chicken. You can add garlic to your eggs, pasta dishes, sauces, and cooked vegetables.

Ginger is also a root that also comes in handy in cooking. It is very common in Asian cuisine. Try it in stir-frys, curries, or soups. If you’ve never cooked with ginger before, our Sweet Potato Ginger Soup is a good place to start.

Add flavor (and heat) to dishes by using jalapenos or other hot peppers. Add hot peppers to curries, chili, tacos, salsas, and more. Check out our Hot Pepper Guide to learn more about how different types of hot peppers can be used.

Citrus juices can be added to a variety of foods to add flavor. Pair these up with different spices and herbs and you’ll have a dish packed with flavor. You can also use lemon or lime zest in salad dressings, green salads, and fish or chicken dishes. Our Blueberry Lemon Yogurt Parfait calls for both the juice and zest of two lemons.

There are lots of ways to add flavor to your food, allowing you to use less salt and still enjoy home cooking with your family. There are many additional herbs and spices not listed here that you can use as well. The options are endless. So, start by using some of these tips in your own cooking, and don’t be afraid to try some new recipes!

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