How hard is it to reduce your salt?

By Tim Carman
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.

All I know is that I drank more wine during this week of deprivation than I have in years. After a day of lackluster meals on Day 2, I drove straight to Cork Market and bought a bottle of 2004 Hawley Cabernet Sauvignon. I popped the cork and poured myself a deep glass to pair with a bowl of imported tagliatelle (a surprisingly zero-sodium product that I boiled in, ugh, salt-less water) and topped with a miserly half-cup of Toigo Orchards' heirloom tomato sauce. The pasta was poverty eating, with no room for even a scrap of meat. The wine was compensation, as if to remind myself I'm still worthy of life's riches.

Day 3: Flavor substitute

Ask any 10 chefs how to boost flavor when salt is scarce, and each one, almost to the toque, will name one or all of the following: spices, citrus juices, fresh herbs, reduced unsalted stocks or rubs. Those ingredients are already used to add depth and complexity, but the presumption is that, with less salt, they will shoulder a larger burden in any particular dish. I received a lesson in that theory at Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca over lunch.

I explained my situation to the waiter, and before I knew it, executive chef Nicholas Stefanelli had a plan. Part of it was to serve an appetizer of yellowfin tuna carpaccio with segments of blood orange, crunchy spears of fennel, strips of pickled lemon zest and artfully sprinkled fronds of dill. Stefanelli withheld the salt he usually sprinkles on top. When I rolled up a length of the thinly sliced tuna, concealing the toppings like a burrito, I was impressed with the bursts of acid and sweetness that punctuated the fresh, clean fattiness of the fish.

And I had one unshakable thought: This would taste a lot better with some salt.

Day: 4: Home cooking

The solution to the Himalayan mountain of salt we face in restaurants and grocery stores is to cook at home. Success, of course, is contingent on at least two factors: One, that you follow a low-sodium recipe; two, that you treat your salt shaker as if it were a bear in the woods and leave it undisturbed. That is not my way.

Still, I dutifully followed the Indian Wok Seared Chicken and Vegetables recipe that Deputy Food Editor Bonnie Benwick found in "EatingWell: 500 Calorie Dinners," by Jessie Price, Nicci Micco and the Eating Well Test Kitchen (Countryman Press, 2010). She had scaled down the ingredient list so it would serve two, meaning the entire recipe would include less than a half-teaspoon of salt. I usually spill more salt than that on the floor.

But the recipe's genius is its technique of rolling the cut chicken in a cornstarch-and-spice blend, so that those precious few crystals are evenly distributed on the surface of the meat. The dish, I must confess, was delicious, and neither my wife, Carrie, nor I felt that our sodium-spoiled tastebuds were deprived.

Day 5: The standoff

I hate Georgetown Cupcake. To celebrate the second season of its "DC Cupcakes" reality program on TLC, the bakery sent everyone in the Food section a dozen frosted cakes. That is not, of course, why I hate Georgetown Cupcake. I hate them because, aside from the nutritional breakdown that The Post performed on the chocolate ganache cupcake recipe, the folks at Georgetown Cupcake have no clue about the sodium content of their treats. I know. I called. Twice.

This nutritional ignorance is all too common. Many chefs have no clue, nor do employees at places where they should know. I tried to buy lunch at Potbelly Sandwich Shop and walked out when a manager informed me that Potbelly's nutritional information could be found only online. Chop't Creative Salad Co. had to fetch a manual to show me the figures, an awkward review in the middle of a crowded shop. And don't even bother with most vendors at the farmers market. You might as well ask them to map the human genome.

Every time I walked into our kitchen, I ran smack into a pink temptress: the box full of Georgetown Cupcakes. And I didn't eat a single one all weekend, the victim of a company not sensitive to sodium counts.

Day 6: The experiment

Whatever you think of sugar substitutes, they at least provide a sweetness that sort of mimics the original ingredient. Salt substitutes and salt-free seasonings are different beasts altogether. I tried to imagine what my world would be like without salt, based on a small, highly biased experiment with three seasonings: NoSalt, Mrs. Dash Table Blend and Trapani sea salt.

I bought three cheap strip steaks, one for each of the seasonings. I seared the steaks in a pan, popped them in the oven to finish and sampled the results. The NoSalt steak tasted like bitter metal, if that's even possible, and the Mrs. Dash tasted like stale herbs. And the Trapani? Well, it turned even that overcooked piece of low-grade meat into something savory and semi-satisfying.

Steak and salt. There is no substitute.

Day 7: Sodium showdown

All food manufacturers are not alike. That fact is routinely noted by nutritionists who point to the wide variation in sodium among, say, tomato sauces. Newman's Own Cabernet Marinara, for example, has 590 milligrams of sodium per serving; Classico's Cabernet Marinara, conversely, has 330 milligrams per serving, which cuts the sodium nearly in half.

There can be even wider variation in the freezer case, where the sodium content ranges from the salt lick of P.F. Chang's Home Menu Ginger Chicken and Broccoli (1,030 milligrams) to the merely salty Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers General Tso's Spicy Chicken (500 milligrams). The healthful choice is obvious, and not just by name, but the flavorful choice is equally clear: The General Tso's tastes as though some scientist decided consumers would be happy to sacrifice salt for sugar. The Ginger Chicken and Broccoli tastes like decent Chinese takeout, if you can erase the memory of dumping that frozen block into a saucepan to heat up.

If I had to choose between the two for dinner - and thank God I don't - I'd pick the P.F. Chang's meal every time. Of course, you might say that's just the salt talking.

Many will tell you that it takes six weeks for your palate to adjust to lower sodium levels. That might be true, but I must admit that even after a week's worth of reduction, I developed a serious appreciation for the small pockets of salt I did encounter, as if my palate were hard-wired to seek out the mineral's many pleasures to ensure my survival (which is sort of the case).

But I was also acutely aware, given my predilection for savory and salty foods, that I was eating less overall, just to stay under the 1,500-milligram limit. I felt hungry many days. In retrospect, I realize I could have filled that void with low-sodium fruits and vegetables, which, come to think of it, is exactly what the government wants me to do anyway.


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