Learn about herbs, spices, and juices that reduce salt intake – and provide additional health benefits!
Americans consume too much salt, and it’s not very healthy. And reportedly, hair loss can be exacerbated by a salt-induced potassium-copper imbalance. The kicker is that much of the salt is hidden in the foods we purchase.
But the solutions are pretty simple, too. As with so much when it comes to smarter nutrition, it’s just a matter of knowing what you’re doing.
Part of the problem is that our bodies need salt – sodium by another name – such that nature has programmed us to crave it along with sugar and fat, all essential to survival. But in the 21st century, we’re past subsistence living – the Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 2,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, which is about a single teaspoon of table salt. If you’re African-American or over the age of 50, you should cut that in half.
Salt is everywhere
But if you eat a typical Western diet, good luck. Salt is quite plentiful in nature and thus a cheap ingredient in food processing and cooking. Even if you abstain from shaking salt onto your dinner, sodium is ubiquitous in processed foods. Just a cup of raisin bran for breakfast (340 mg), two slices of salami (600 mg), a cup of tomato-vegetable juice (650 mg), a cup of chicken noodle soup (1,100 mg), a handful of salted peanuts (1 ounce, 230 mg), a single ounce of pretzels (380 mg), one serving of prepackaged potatoes with a flavor packet (1,200 mg), and even fat-free French salad dressing (340 mg) on your healthy green salad all add up: 4,840 mg, double what you should be consuming.
And most of those foods are at least eaten at home, where the healthier fare is more likely. Go to a chain restaurant and here’s what you might get: Red Lobster Admiral’s Feast (a creamy lobster with salad, potato, and biscuit) has 7,100 mg, of salt. Olive Garden’s Chicken Parmigiana (5,735 mg) and Chili’s Buffalo Chicken Fajitas (6,900 mg) aren’t much better. Go to a fine dining establishment and there’s no guarantee the chef won’t use salt in large quantities, too. There’s a reason you have to get up for a glass of water in the night following a hearty meal.
Shame on food processors and chefs for not being a bit more creative. Part of the problem is that salt is a preservative, which simplifies the economics of food production, shipping and storage.
Low sodium herbs, spices, roots, and juices
If you want to make healthy changes in your life, it absolutely should involve making more meals at home from unprocessed foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, unsalted nuts, whole grains, lean meats). Just don’t muck it up by adding a lot of salt (a little is OK). Fortunately, there is a great selection of herbs, spices, tubers, and juices that can make your meal far lower in sodium and therefore much healthier. Start with these (all low in sodium):
- Lemon juice: It’s high in vitamin C and adds zing to almost everything; citric juices of all kinds are also good for marinating chicken or meat.
- Vinegar: Like citric juices, it adds a strong acidic taste and is widely used for medicinal purposes around the world. It contains smaller amounts of sodium and sugar, more of potassium and magnesium.
- Chilies, black and cayenne peppers, Tabasco, mustard: While prepared sauces (mustards and Tabasco) have salt added, both are predominantly made of hot spices and can turn up the heat on any dish. The “heat” factor, based in capsicum, can increase the metabolism for up to two hours after eating.
- Cilantro: Containing anti-inflammatory properties that can increase HDL (good cholesterol), this herb provides fiber and minerals including manganese, magnesium and iron.
- Oregano: Popular in the United States since soldiers returning from wartime Italy introduced us to the “pizza herb,” oregano imparts many medicinal properties in both fresh and the more common dried forms. Used to settle stomachs and as a topical treatment for skin infections, it is high in antioxidants.
- Turmeric: Yellow and staining (used as a dye, often, and the reason why French’s mustard is yellow), turmeric is regarded as medicine in Ayurvedic culture. Also, it is an anti-inflammatory, with high amounts of manganese, iron and vitamin B6. A great spice in soups.
- Ginger: Love Thai foods? Or ginger ale or ginger candies? This common root is most potent in its tuber form and is easily diced into recipes. Full of copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, fiber, and vitamin C, it adds a distinct flavor to meat, chicken and vegetable dishes.
- Onion family: Whether you choose Spanish, white, red, or green onions; chives or scallions; leeks; shallots, or garlic, you get a healthy dose of allicin, a flavonol that is linked to reduced cancers throughout the digestive system (from the esophagus to the colon). (Variants of this compound, alternatively spelled flavanol, are found in plants and are thought to protect humans from allergens, viruses, and carcinogens.) Add most of these in the latter stage of cooking or at the table to keep the taste sharp and the nutrients intact (cooking kills nutrients sometimes, but not always).
Putting it together: home-fried, no-salt potato chips
If you think you cannot do without an occasional bag of potato chips, try this recipe at home:
- Four medium-sized, thinly sliced potatoes (white, red or sweet – approximately 3-4 cups)
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 4 tablespoons of vinegar (white, apple cider, red wine)
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 3 tablespoons minced garlic
- Dried chilies, to taste
Stir-fry potato slices in oil, chilies, and turmeric for 10-15 minutes, until crisp, gradually adding a tablespoon of vinegar every 3-4 minutes. When slices are crisp, mix with remaining ingredients and serve.