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Keeping an eye on salt

SHAPE June 2017

Chefs, restaurateurs looks for ways to cut back on the salt content in their food.


While experts agree that we require a certain amount of salt in our diet to remain healthy, Americans clearly are getting too much of a good thing. — and chefs and restaurateurs can help to address the problem.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 90 percent of Americans consume too much sodium. 

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults limit their daily intake to less than 2,300 milligrams each day — about equal to the amount of sodium in a teaspoon of table salt.

However, the guidelines state that the average American over 1-year old consumes nearer to 3,440 milligrams each day of the essential nutrient. Men in particular are guilty of ingesting too much salt — on average 4,240 milligrams — although women are also over the recommended limit, taking in about 2,980 milligrams per day.

Libby Mills, a nutritionist and cooking coach in Philadelphia and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says sodium is necessary to help regulate blood pressure and the fluid in our blood vessels, but “too much can cause water retention and increase blood pressure. High blood pressure increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and can damage the kidneys, heart and blood vessels. Too much sodium can increase the risk of heart failure and stroke.”

Mills adds too much sodium also can contribute to osteoporosis by leeching calcium from the bones. “This circulating calcium is thought to contribute to the formation of kidney stones,” she says.

In response to these health concerns, a growing number of Americans are seeking a more balanced diet, which can include the reduction of “negative ingredients” such as salt, sugar and fat, says research firm Datassential in its “New Healthy 2016” study. Almost half — 44 percent — of those individuals polled say they are actively trying to limit sodium/salt in their diets. Nearly three-quarters — 74 percent — of study participants say they are “more likely to buy” a food item with reduced sodium. 

Major contributor of salt

Restaurants are said to be a major contributor to the sodium problem. “The fundamental research supporting the FDA’s 'Menu to Mouth: Opportunities for Sodium Reduction in Restaurants,' found that a quarter of the sodium consumed between 2007-2008 was from restaurant foods,” Mills says. “The average sodium in the main entrées alone from 400 of America’s restaurants with the highest sales, was 1,512 milligrams. And between 2005 and 2011, fast-food restaurants were using 55 percent more sodium.”

Many restaurant meals meet or exceed an entire day’s worth of sodium in just one sitting, says Sara Lucero, director of content for Healthy Dining. In fact, a majority of Americans' sodium intake comes from processed, packaged and restaurant foods, according to the American Heart Association, which identifies the top six sources of sodium in the U.S. diet as being breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, soups, sandwiches and poultry. 

Acknowledging the restaurant connection, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled recently that chain restaurants must comply with the New York City Board of Health's controversial sodium-labeling mandate. The mandate requires chain restaurants with more than 15 locations nationally to post salt-shaker icons next to menu items exceeding 2,300 milligrams of sodium. The National Restaurant Association had opposed the mandate, arguing that the Board of Health does not have the authority to enact such a mandate, but lost the challenge, according to Angelo Amador, executive director of the NRA's Restaurant Law Center. The penalty for a violation of this section is a $200 fine.

Increasingly, operators are taking it into their own hands to reduce the amount of salt in the menu items. Anita Jones-Mueller, founder of Healthy Dining — which received funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), to evaluate strategies to help restaurants reduce calories, saturated fat and sodium — recommends the following actions chefs and restaurateurs can take to limit the amount of salt in their food:

Cook more from scratch?

Cooking from scratch enables an operator to control a menu item's ingredients, including the amount of salt used. In addition to reducing sodium, this can result in cost savings by decreasing the use of premade items. 

Use smaller quantities of higher sodium ingredients

Identify the ingredients that are higher in sodium, such as cheeses, certain condiments, olives, dressings and sauces. Can you use less of these ingredients or can you find a lower sodium version? Compare labels or ask your supplier for nutritional content when available. This will not only reduce sodium but might enable you to save on food costs. Research indicates that gradual reductions in sodium are often not detected by guests.

Use more fresh produce

Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium, so look for opportunities to include more fresh produce in your menu. Your plates will be healthier — and more colorful.

Use less salt 

Even though the salt shaker is not the main problem, there is still opportunity to reduce the sodium content in meals by using less salt in recipes:

• Experiment with reducing the salt used in recipes by 10 percent to 20 percent, and test with your staff.

• Taste before you salt. Does the food need it or is salting just a habit?

• Use salt to enhance the final flavor of your product rather than adding salt throughout the cooking process.

Add flavor without adding salt

There are many flavoring agents and salt-free seasonings that can brighten a dish without the use of salt including onions, garlic, ginger, scallions, balsamic vinegar, citrus juice, salt-free seasoning blends and powders, olive oil and wine.

Tweak your cooking techniques

Cooking techniques such as grilling, braising, roasting, searing and sautéing bring out the natural flavors in foods and reduce the need to add salt. Use these techniques instead of frying in a breading or coating, an approach that is usually high in sodium.



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