Maggie’s new book, 52 Tips for Low-Salt Living, is now available in standard print, large print, and ebook from Amazon, and in ebook on Kobo, Barnes & Noble Nook, and iBooks
Last month, we began talking about making the switch to a low-salt lifestyle. This month, we’re going to jump right in and talk about finding replacement flavors.
The most common mistake I see people make is trying to just leave out the salt – without adding anything else. First, remember that salt and sodium are not inherently evil. Everyone needs a certain amount of sodium. Sodium helps balance the fluids in our bodies, and assists in muscle and nerve function, There are, as you may remember from grade school health class, five taste receptors on the tongue: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. The last one is fairly new, actually, so you may only remember the first four.
Either way, umami is essentially savory. Sour is what cooks often call “acid” and comes from citrus, wines, vinegars, etc. Bitter comes from both not delicious stuff and good stuff like dark chocolate, coffee, and citrus rinds. Sweet is sweet and salt is salty. The catch is that the only thing that really fully stimulates the saltiness receptor is, well, salt. Most salt substitutes rely on potassium chloride, which works to a degree, but not all that well. Stimulating that saltiness receptor is what triggers the release of neurotransmitters that contribute to nerve and muscle function.
So, in short, you need sodium to trigger those receptors, but you have to be very careful because too much will wreck your fluid balance, causing high blood pressure. Also, there’s really no other good way to satisfy your saltiness taste receptor, and our tastebuds are all trained to read too much salt as the correct amount. By now it should be easy to see why switching to low-sodium is so tough – and why just leaving out the salt is not a satisfying option.
The better bet (and the more fun one) is to add other flavors to your foods. This both adds interest and allows you to stimulate taste receptors that don’t usually get enough attention. Let’s look at some of my favorite tricks.
Add heat. Heat does not, as far as I can tell, correlate to any of the five basic receptors. It certainly stimulates something, though, and it’s a nice element to be able to add and adjust to different tastes. The main problem is that the ways we often add heat – hot sauce, spice blends, pickled jalapenos – are all chock-full of sodium. Enter the favorite part of my personal spice rack: ground peppers. Everyone knows about black pepper, but you can also try white pepper, red pepper flakes and powders, pink pepper, and green pepper. Then there’s my go-to: jalapeño powder. I know! I didn’t know this was a thing until I stumbled upon it either. (Tip: it’s in the International/Hispanic/Latino section, not the spice section.) I use it regularly now.
Add acid. Acid, as we said above, stimulates the sourness taste receptor, so adding acid can be a great way to compensate for lowered salt. This is why so many low-sodium blogs, articles, and diets tout the benefits of lemon juice. And, honestly, lemon juice is pretty awesome. But so is lime, especially if you love cilantro. You can also cook with other citrus juices. Cooking with wine can also add acid, just be sure you’re using actual wine (if your doctor says it’s okay) and not cooking wines. Fun fact: cooking wines are mostly made by adding a bunch of sodium to not-so-great wine. Two tablespoons of the cooking sherry I used to use? 190 mg. So not worth it. Vinegar is another terrific way to work in acid, and you’ve again got lots of options, from apple cider to balsamic to red and white wine to rice and beyond.
Add bitterness. I realize this sounds odd. Why do we want to make something bitter? Remember, though, coffee and chocolate live here so it can’t be all bad. Citrus peel is the undisputed winner for adding bitterness in my book. You can, if you wish, pick up a zester and make your own fresh quite easily. Frankly, despite owning a zester, I never think to do this. I use dried lemon peel in lots of things though, and it definitely adds nice zing.
You have lots and lots of other options, too, from spices to low-sodium condiments (make sure they really are low in sodium, however, and not just “lower”). It’s easy, especially in the beginning, to get overwhelmed. I strongly suggest you either pick up a low-sodium cookbook or search the internet for recipes to try.
I personally maintain a Pinterest board (Pinterest.com/MaggieSheWrote/Low-Salt-Life) and if you aren’t on Pinterest, I urge you to check it out. It really is more a search engine than a social media site, and it gives you the benefit of collecting and keeping all your recipes and suggestions in one place. It’s kind of like the binders of recipes clipped from magazines we all used to have, but more easily searchable and accessible from anywhere on a smartphone, laptop, or tablet.
Above all, keep in mind that you’re doing this for your health and your loved ones. When you get stressed or overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remember your whys. You can do this. It’s not always easy, but you can do it. And you don’t have to do it alone.