Shaking the Salt (Part 4)

Over these past few weeks, I’ve been writing an awful lot about salt and sodium. Who knew there would be so much to say about it? Actually, there’s still a lot more to say, but we’re going to wrap things up on this topic this week.


Interesting news about sodium to share with you: First, ConAgra Foods, makers of well-known brands such as Chef Boyardee, Banquet, Hunt’s, and Healthy Choice, announced last week that they’ve removed almost 3 million pounds (!!) of salt from many of their products. They also apparently have new technology that enables them to reduce the amount of sodium in their microwave popcorn. So far, ConAgra has been able to cut the sodium content in many of their foods by between 15% and 20%, all the while preserving flavor.

Secondly, ConAgra’s timely statement coincides with a report released in the journal The Lancet last week. British researchers looked at studies of people living in 23 countries, including the United States, India, Russia, and Vietnam. They specifically focused on the relationship between salt intake and blood pressure and found, not surprisingly, that in societies with a high sodium intake, blood pressure increases quite a bit as people age. What really hits home is their conclusion that “8.5 million deaths can be averted by 2015 if people consume 3 to 4.5 grams of kitchen salt per day, or around a 30% less salt than average.”

Last week (in “Shaking the Salt [Part 3]”), we looked at ways to reduce sodium intake. Several readers have mentioned the use of other kinds of salt and salt substitutes. Salt used in cooking comes in three forms: table salt, kosher salt, and sea salt. All of these salts are about 99% sodium chloride. The primary difference between the three has to do with the size of the crystal, and thus, the texture.

Table salt is mined from under the ground and has a finer, more uniform texture. Table salt usually contains iodine, to maintain healthy thyroid function, as well as an anticaking agent. Kosher salt comes from either the sea or from underground, and is a larger, coarser crystal. It gets its name from the koshering process in which it’s used. Sea salt is harvested from, of course, the sea, and contains minerals. Depending on the mineral content, the color of sea salt can vary. Sea salt may have either a fine or coarse texture. These three different types of salt contain the same amount of sodium per serving. However, because sea salt and kosher salt are “larger” than table salt (meaning, you can “fit” more table salt into a measuring spoon), you may end up using less of these two salts. Just don’t think of sea salt or kosher salt as being low in sodium, however.

The term “salt substitute” is a little ambiguous. Some people take it to mean “lite” salt, which is not really a salt substitute. For example, Morton Lite Salt Mixture contains 50% less sodium than regular salt (so it’s obviously not sodium-free). Morton also has a product called Salt Balance, which contains 25% less sodium than regular salt. (And Morton has Popcorn Salt, which is just a finer version of regular salt—it’s not a reduced-sodium product).

However, Morton does make a true salt substitute (called Morton Salt Substitute!) that contains potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride. NuSalt and AlsoSalt are other brands of salt substitutes that also contain potassium chloride. While getting more potassium (and less sodium) in one’s diet can be a good thing, some people should not use salt substitutes without first checking with their physician. These folks include people with kidney disease and those taking medicines that can lead to potassium retention in the body, such as ACE inhibitors (which are often used by people who have diabetes). Too much potassium can lead to heart rhythm disturbances.

Remember, too, that there are plenty of other sodium-free and low-sodium ways to season your foods—herbs, spices, and seasoning blends such as Mrs. Dash are all great choices!

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  • delebra

    I use Salt Sense, which is salt with 33% less sodium per measure than regular salt – 390 mg per 1/4 teaspoon. And there are several seasoned salt mixtures that have very little sodium. But mostly I use herb mixtures: McCormick Garlic and Herb is a good all-purpose mix, and a lot of cookbooks have good recipes for homemade blends without salt.

  • mpdmedic

    I rarely use salt with the understanding that most all foods we eat have sufficient salt naturally. To improve the taste of a partidular item, I normally use another spice. But salt is necessary for proper rise of home baked yeast breads.

  • acampbell

    Hi mpdmedic,

    Thanks for pointing this out. Yeast breads do require some salt in order for the bread to rise properly. Salt provides structure to the bread’s gluten. But, as you mentioned, if you happen to be a homemade bread lover, you can cut back on sodium elsewhere in your eating plan.

  • toni

    I always thought I was a lite salt kind of gal.I rarely add salt to my food except when I’m cooking. The doctor found I had high blood pressure so he put me on meds, but he also prescribed a low salt diet. Oh my God! What an eye opener! Everything is loaded with sodium! My favorite thing to eat in the world was Chinese food. My blood pressure was probably high from Chinese food alone. Anyway, now I’m trying to come up with new ways to cook as well as eat. Is there a taste difference between salt substitute and regular table salt?

  • acampbell

    Hi toni,

    Yes, following a low-sodium diet can be an eye opener! Sodium is hidden in so many foods, including foods that don’t even taste salty. Salt substitutes tend to have a slightly bitter aftertaste, although some will probably appeal to you more than others. Also, be careful with some of these, as they may contain potassium (instead of sodium); if you have any kidney problems, too much potassium can be dangerous. You can also try lite salt or even a little Kosher salt. They aren’t necessarily low sodium, but they’ll give you a little less. Eventually, though, you’ll likely be able to wean yourself from salt — it takes a little time. Try using other seasonings instead of salt, too. I came across this interesting website for low-sodium recipes, so check it out and see what you think!

  • Kevin

    I’m wondering if using popcorn salt for flavoring saves on total salt intake.

    As you only tastes the outside of the crystal, it would seem you get the same surface area, but less volume of salt intake.

  • acampbell

    Hi Kevin,

    It’s a good question that you ask. Popcorn salt is a super-fine salt that sticks well to popcorn kernels better than larger crystal salt. The sodium content can vary from brand to brand, but two brands that I looked at have between 370 and 470 mg sodium per 1/4 teaspoon. For comparison, 1/4 teaspoon of regular salt has 590 mg of sodium. However, using a “lite” or low-sodium salt substitute contains less sodium than popcorn salt (anywhere from 230 to 440 mg sodium per 1/4 teaspoon).

  • Josie

    My husband is a diabetic Type 2 and needs to cut down on sodium. Is potassium in food items the same as sodium, or should he cut down on potassium also? Is there a salt substitute that is tolerated by diabetics Type 2? All I see on my food ingredients labels are sodium. What is a tolerable amount of salt for a person with type 2 Diabetees? Thank you Josie

  • acampbell

    Hi josie,

    No, potassium is another type of mineral found in foods, as well as in the body. Potassium may help to lower blood pressure. However, too much potassium, like too much sodium, can be harmful, especially if your kidneys are not working as well as they should (which can happen in diabetes). You or your husband should check with his doctor to make sure that he does not need to watch his potassium intake. Also, you should ask his doctor about how “strict” he needs to be with his sodium intake. Many people are told to take in no more than 2300 mg of sodium per day, but some people need to cut back to 1500 mg per day.