Sometime in the not-too-distant future, you curl up on the couch to watch a new movie, but there’s something missing. The snacks. You check the kitchen cabinet, but remember that you ate the last bag of salty potato chips two years ago. All that’s left is a jar of unsalted peanuts.
Maybe you could grab a pepperoni pizza from the restaurant on the corner. No chance. That place was shut down last month by the Food and Drug Administration (for serving high-sodium pizzas and french fries).
Welcome to the brave new low-salt world of the future, in which salt has gone the way of trans fats in the quest to help us enjoy longer and healthier lives.
After the Salt-Pocalypse
This nightmare scenario won't be playing out anytime soon, and it’s unlikely that sodium will ever disappear completely, but the FDA is expected to release guidelines calling for restaurants and food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the amount of salt they use in their food.
It's hard to envision a world where sodium chloride is no longer the go-to flavor-booster for mass food production. But guidelines on lowering sodium intake have existed for some time.
For many, reducing their salt intake to this level would be a challenge, to say the least. On average, Americans consume 3,400 mg per day, and 75 percent of our intake comes not from the little shaker at home, but from processed foods and restaurant meals.
Eating too much salt can not only dehydrate you, it can also increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. According to a 2011 study in the journal Circulation, if everyone in the country cut their sodium intake to less than 1,500 mg per day, it would prevent up to 120,000 coronary heart disease events, 66,000 strokes, 99,000 heart attacks, and 92,000 deaths every year.
A Creative Culinary Challenge
Life after salt, however, is far from bleak, even for those with an undeniable salt-tooth.
“Food is really transformed as soon as you start focusing on all the ways beyond salt to use flavor,” said Jessica Goldman Foung, creator of Sodium Girl and author of Sodium Girl's Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook: How to Lose the Salt and Eat the Foods You Love, of the salt-free meals she routinely requests at restaurants. “No one seems to think of it as that big of a deal anymore. It becomes a challenge for creativity versus a food handicap.”
When it comes to salt, many restaurants are big offenders, with sodium sneaking into unlikely places like sauce and salad dressing. But even a slice or roll of bread, which doesn't have a lot of sodium by itself, can start to tip your salt scales if you snack away mindlessly.
The secret to successful low-salt dining? Call ahead and tell the staff what ingredients you can eat. “The more information you can give the kitchen, the more prep time you can give them, the better it is,” said Foung.
Besides becoming a “salt-free VIP” at restaurants, as Foung calls herself, her life changed in many other ways when she was diagnosed with a medical condition that requires her to cut back on salt for the sake of her kidneys.
“I’d also say I did not cook at all, so it really began a whole journey,” she said. “Learning more about the natural flavors in food, the whole world of spices that exist, ways beyond even using bottles of sauce or a spice rack to infuse food with flavor—like grilling and roasting and stewing—and even just making a plate look really pretty suddenly makes food look good.”
Living a Low-Salt Life
If you cook at home, you have two options for handling sodium. Eliminate table salt completely, as Foung does in many of her recipes, or look for a salt alternative.
Foung cuts salt out entirely by using flavorful herbs and spices, such as fresh garlic, flavored vinegar, lemon juice, salt-free herb blends, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, fresh ground pepper, oregano, or tarragon.
If you prefer a salt alternative, be aware that many still contain sodium, which can quickly add up. Others contain potassium chloride, which can be harmful for people with kidney problems, and may interact with heart, kidney, or liver medications.
Many consumers and some health professionals say sea salt is a good substitute for table salt.
“Sodium chloride is just sodium chloride, and not the 72 minerals that are included in sea salt,” said doctor and dietitian Carolyn Dean, author of The Magnesium Miracle, who is a strong proponent of this less heavily processed salt harvested from the sea. “So yes, to reduce the sodium chloride is a good idea because salt or sugar are the two additives that are put in food to make them palatable.”
But like table salt, sea salt still contains sodium, sometimes as much as 40 percent. If you are trying to limit your sodium intake, use sea salt sparingly.
In addition to restaurant meals, another major source of sodium in the American diet is processed foods. Reading labels can help you ferret out the hidden sodium, especially in less obvious foods like vegetable juices, sauces and condiments, and breakfast cereals. Along the way, you may also realize that for better overall health, whole foods are often the best way to go.
“In dumbing down foods, in other words, you’re moving farther away from foods that are raw, foods that are not processed, the more problems you’re going to have long-term,” said Dr. Ernest Brown, a family care physician in Washington, D.C. “Because you’re not getting good nutritional value. You’re removing elements in nutrition that support good health. And then you’re adding on things that make maybe make the product more shelf stable, and maybe tastier, but are nutritionally deficient and actually make you worse.”