In addition to looking through your spices, look through all other packaged goods (all cans, bags, boxes, and jars) and check the Nutrition Facts panel for the amount of sodium per serving. Canned goods such as tomato products, other vegetables, beans, soups, and chilis are often high in sodium. Frozen meals, entrées, and vegetables with sauce or flavorings also tend to be high in sodium. Generally, when selecting packaged goods of any type, consider those that have less than 5% of the Daily Value for sodium to be low in sodium and those that have more than 20%, high in sodium. (See “Label Talk” for more guidelines on finding lower-sodium packaged foods.)
Using salt substitutes
There are several different categories of salt substitutes. Some are sodium-free and others just contain less sodium than regular salt. Each has pros and cons in terms of flavor and nutrition.
Reduced-sodium salt substitutes. These products, such as Morton’s Lite Salt, contain varying amounts of salt, so they taste the most like salt. Most are a mixture of sodium and potassium chloride, another chemical compound with a salty taste. Generally, they contain 25% to 50% less sodium per serving than regular salt. Reduced-sodium salt substitutes may be best for those who eat mostly home-cooked food and do not already have high blood pressure. If you eat packaged or preprepared food regularly, any amount of added salt, even from lower-sodium substitutes, is likely to increase your sodium intake above the recommended levels. If you already have high blood pressure and have been advised to follow a sodium-restricted diet (usually with no more than 1,000–2,000 mg daily), it would be wise to choose a salt substitute that is completely sodium-free.
Potassium-based salt substitutes. Potassium is the primary ingredient in sodium-free salt substitutes because of its salty flavor. Unlike regular salt, however, potassium chloride salt substitutes can have a bitter taste, so an amino acid (L-lysine monohydrochloride) is often added to offset the bitterness. Even then, some people still find the flavor unpleasant.
The upside of using potassium-based salt substitutes is that they are completely sodium-free and are also a good source of potassium in the diet, with some containing over 15% of the Daily Value in just G teaspoon. The best natural sources of potassium are minimally processed fruits and vegetables, which is why the average American diet is as notoriously low in potassium as it is high in sodium. Potassium helps lower blood pressure, just as sodium raises it. It may also play a role in blood glucose control. One study of people with high blood pressure who were using a type of diuretic (blood pressure medicine) that lowers potassium in the body showed that people with lower levels of potassium had decreased insulin secretion and higher blood glucose.
The downside of potassium chloride salt substitutes is that they are not safe for people with kidney insufficiency or disease. That’s because as the kidneys fail, they lose their ability to expel all minerals, including potassium. A person with diminished kidney function generally needs to limit the amounts of calcium, potassium, and phosphorus he consumes.
The only other potential downside to using potassium-based salt substitutes is that — similar to the idea that using artificial sweeteners and drinking diet soda just perpetuates the “sweet tooth” rather than curbing it — using salty potassium chloride in place of salt would not really be “training” your taste buds to enjoy food with less salt, just tricking them into thinking you are eating it.
Herb mixes. Herb mixes, such as Mrs. Dash, are sodium-free and usually have minimal to zero potassium, so they are safe for those with kidney problems. Many herbs are known for their antioxidant or other health properties, so these may have added benefit beyond adding flavor to low-sodium dishes. The choices are many (there are 15 varieties of Mrs. Dash alone) and if you are so inclined, it is quite simple to prepare your own dried herb blend (see the recipe for “Low-Sodium Herb-Roasted Chicken” for an example of herbs to blend).