How hard is it to reduce your salt?

(William Duke - For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 10:47 AM

The day before I started my low-sodium diet, I bought a bagel at Chinatown Coffee Co. loaded with salt and, much later, split a strip steak at Ray's: The Classics in Silver Spring. My total sodium intake was a complete mystery.

So I did some sleuthing: Ray's owner, Michael Landrum, guesses his 16-ounce strip includes about 500 milligrams of sodium from the salt his cooks sprinkle on top and an additional 250 in the accompanying brandy mushroom cream sauce. But those numbers don't include the sodium naturally occurring in the muscle. Omaha Steaks, for example, says its eight-ounce strip alone contains 115 milligrams of sodium. The bagel has proven even trickier to calculate. The best I can do is hazard a guess based on the Everything bagel at Einstein Bros., whose round boasts a whopping 620 milligrams of sodium.

Generally speaking, between the bagel and half of that strip steak, my sodium intake was around 1,000 milligrams. And that doesn't include the creamed spinach, the salty cashews, the wine, the morning coffee, the cubicle snacks, the cafeteria sandwich, the chips and countless other salt-delivery systems I indulged in during this single day.

As you can see, managing sodium intake requires the sort of endless vigilance that most of us don't seem to have the stomach for. The average American age 2 and older gobbles down more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. The government would like millions of us to shave almost 2,000 milligrams off that number. The new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for nearly half of U.S. residents, those at risk for hypertension and other health problems, to drop their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams, maximum, a day. That's about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt.

Is that even doable in the sodium-rich playground called America? Just as important: Is it palatable? I decided to give the 1,500-milligram diet a test run for a week, making sure to sample foods not only prepared at home but also purchased at grocery stores and restaurants and even from vending machines. I ran into obstacles everywhere. I also encountered some nice surprises.

Day 1: Trust no one

If advocates of sodium reduction want you to understand anything, it's this: Food processors and chefs don't care if you choke down enough salt to cure a pig right in its tracks. They're out to make a buck. Whether that is true, I don't know, but I will say this: Chefs can be cavalier about salt sensitivities.

Case in point: When I stopped at Jackie's in Silver Spring to celebrate a friend's birthday, our waiter assured me that chef Diana Davila-Boldin doesn't use a lot of salt in her cooking. I felt like I was being played for a sucker. So I explained how precious few milligrams of sodium I had left in my diet that day: about 400, which translates to less than a quarter-teaspoon of salt, depending on what kind of salt the chef uses.

At Davila-Boldin's urging, I settled for a wan bowl of mustard spaetzle with savoy cabbage, which the kitchen purposely did not finish with its usual teaspoon of salt. If not for the small, selective bursts of mustard and the cabbage-y sweetness of the savoy, the spaetzle surely would have evaporated from sheer blandness. Only later, while talking to Davila-Boldin on the phone, did I learn that a single portion of her dish typically contains at least a quarter-teaspoon of salt, not counting the finishing salt or the sodium found in the Dijon mustard.

"Wow," said the chef, after hearing how little sodium I could consume that evening. "That's a very, very small amount."

That disconnect between low-sodium diner and sodium-packing chef had cost me: I had blown my limit on Day 1.

Day 2: Equilibrium of sins

The main pleasure of my trip to Jackie's was the Las Perdices Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina. Each sip of the soft, cherry liquid felt like a small, self-congratulatory pat on the back for undertaking this masochistic experiment. I was further rewarded when I learned that cabernet sauvignon contains no sodium.

Granted, I didn't dig too deep to try to disprove that factoid. Maybe this is subconscious or maybe it's buried deep in my DNA, but in depriving myself of salt, I felt poor - in flavor, definitely, but also perhaps in spirit. As Mark Kurlansky writes repeatedly in his book "Salt: A World History" (Penguin Books, 2002), the now-ubiquitous seasoning was once a prized commodity, one over which countless wars were waged to control its production and distribution. Salt has even been a currency, as if previous civilizations wanted to give this mineral a place of importance inside and outside their bodies.

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