Americans have an enormous appetite for salt. The average American consumes more than a tablespoon daily, much of which comes from processed foods such as ham, cheese, canned goods and frozen dinners. Many people lavishly add extra salt at the table as a matter of habit.
In recent years, Americans have been advised to cut back on their salt intake—along with sugar, fat and many other ingredients that carry a lot of flavor. It may come as a surprise to learn that sodium, which constitutes 40 percent of sodium chloride, has an essential role in the body’s healthy functioning.
“Sodium is as important to good health as water and air,” says Kathy Wein, a clinical dietitian at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.
It’s a micronutrient of high nutritional significance, which plays a major role in maintaining blood volume and blood pressure. Sodium acts on the body by attracting and holding water in the blood vessels and helps transmit nerve impulses, as well as contract and expand muscle fibers. It also plays an important role in the metabolism of protein and carbohydrates.
Nevertheless, too much sodium can cause the body to retain fluid, increasing the volume of blood and the workload of the arteries. As a result, blood pressure rises. In some people with high blood pressure, reducing sodium in the diet can lower blood pressure; other people don’t experience this benefit. Even those in good health, however, may find that cutting back on salt can reduce water retention and bloating. The National Institutes of Health, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and other public-health organizations currently recommend that a person with normal blood pressure limit total sodium intake to no more than 2400 milligrams per day, equivalent to about 1½ teaspoons of salt.
As we try to cultivate healthier eating habits in line with today’s nutritional guidelines, we become more deliberate in our choices. We cut the fat and table the salt in our assault on unhealthy lifestyles, but sometimes even good intentions backfire. Cutting back on salt in our cooking can result in a loss of flavor that makes us reach for the salt shaker. Here’s where herbs and spices can really help.
Cutting back on salt in our cooking can result in a loss of flavor that makes us reach for the salt shaker. Here’s where herbs and spices can really help.
Herbs and spices can make up for the blandness in many salt-free foods by fooling the taste buds responsible for tasting saltiness into accepting a flavorful—but salt-free—substitute. Salt livens up food by heightening its flavor, and herbs work the same way. Salt is an acquired taste that can be transformed over time into a more sophisticated taste for herbs and spices.
The following handy, easy-to-prepare blends use dried herbs and ground spices. Sprinkle them liberally on vegetables, meats and fish, sandwiches, even popcorn, or use them to enliven everyday cooking and favorite recipes. Make them up in batches to keep on hand and give to friends—they make thoughtful gifts! As you combine the ingredients, crumble or chop them to the consistency that you want. Store extras in tightly covered jars in a dark place to preserve their flavor for as long as possible. For use at the table, keep the blends in salt shakers with large holes; blends made with whole spices may be kept in pepper mills. Whenever you need a burst of flavor and zest, you can just say, “Please pass the herbs.”
Erica Levy Klein, who lives in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, is the author of a series of low-calorie cookbooks, including Skinny Sauces, Skinny Chicken, and Skinny Spices (Chicago, Illinois: Surrey Books, 1993). The recipes in this article are adapted from the last, which includes 50 recipes for homemade blends.
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