How Salt Substitutes Really Taste

We tried light salt, liquid aminos, MSG, nutritional yeast, potassium chloride, and seaweed flakes to see whether any could pass for the real thing

popcorn in white bowl with red border and popcorn spilled on side Photo: Getty Images

If you’re trying to cut back on sodium, you’ve probably gotten the advice to cook with plenty of herbs and spices. Their flavor punches up dishes, so you can lay off the saltshaker. But it can sometimes still feel like something’s missing.

That’s because the taste of salt, or sodium chloride, is hard to replace, says Paul Breslin, PhD, a member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center and professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University. Our bodies need the mineral to function, so we’re hardwired to like saltiness.

Salt also plays with your taste buds to enhance other flavors. It suppresses bitter, sour, and metallic notes, while heightening sweetness. Think of sprinkling salt on watermelon, grapefruit, or a dark chocolate chip cookie. “A pinch of salt can alter the flavor profile of a dish to make it more appealing,” Breslin says.

Make a Heart-Healthy Swap

The problem is that 90 percent of Americans get too much sodium. This can raise the risk for high blood pressure, says Julia Zumpano, RD, a dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic. With a teaspoon of salt packing in about 2,300 milligrams—the maximum amount you should consume in an entire day—those pinches and dashes add up.

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That’s where salt substitutes come in. These products promise to add flavor for less or little sodium. Research shows that swapping them for salt may benefit your heart: In a 2021 New England Journal of Medicine study of almost 21,000 older adults with high blood pressure or a history of stroke, half used a substitute made from 75 percent salt and 25 percent potassium chloride. After about five years, those who cooked and seasoned with the substitute were 13 percent less likely to have a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, compared with those who stuck with the regular stuff.

Pick the Best Salt Substitute

But do these products actually satisfy your taste buds? Our team of trained taste testers spent hours trying six products that are commonly used as salt substitutes: “light” salt, liquid aminos, MSG, nutritional yeast, potassium chloride, and seaweed flakes. They blindly tasted each product on white rice, scrambled eggs, and popcorn. For comparison, they were also given samples of the foods seasoned with regular salt and no salt at all. Because these foods are simple, the panelists could chalk up flavors to the substitutes instead of other ingredients, says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist who led the tasting.

Based on their feedback, CR ranked the salt substitutes on how well they worked as a salt swap—either by adding saltiness or enough flavor so that they didn’t miss the salt—from most to least successful. So how did it all shake out? Read on to learn which salt substitutes are worth, well, their weight in salt.

1. Light or Low-Sodium Salt

These products mix regular salt (sodium chloride) with potassium chloride to slash the sodium content by as much as half. Potassium is a mineral that doesn’t raise—and may even help lower—blood pressure. In fact, a review in the journal Heart found that using a low-sodium salt substitute reduced blood pressure levels in people with and without high blood pressure. But these can still contain a considerable amount of sodium, so you still need to watch how much you use, Zumpano says.

If you have kidney disease, using these products in excess may lead to dangerously high potassium levels. Taking certain medicines, including potassium-sparing diuretics and ACE inhibitors, may also raise your risk. Talk to your doctor before you make the switch.

We tried: Morton Lite Salt 50% Less (1,160 mg of sodium per teaspoon). Our testers consistently said that this salt substitute tasted and looked the most like the real thing, although the saltiness is slightly less intense. In rice and eggs, the testers had a hard time telling the difference between the light and regular salt. But when sprinkled on popcorn, they noted a slightly bitter taste.

2. MSG

MSG (monosodium glutamate) combines sodium with glutamate, an amino acid, a building block of protein found in many foods, such as mushrooms, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese. Glutamate, and MSG, adds umami to food. Called the fifth taste, umami is a complex, deep savory flavor that’s imparted by glutamate; it enhances salt perception. MSG contains two-thirds less sodium than salt, so adding a little can bump up the flavor in lower-sodium foods, says Taylor Wallace, PhD, an adjunct professor of food and nutrition studies at George Mason University.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, the glutamate in MSG is chemically indistinguishable from the glutamate found naturally in foods. The average person consumes about 13 grams of glutamate a day from the foods they eat. There have been reports that MSG can cause headaches, nausea, and other issues, but “studies haven’t shown any consistent effects in people who say they’re sensitive, even when they consume foods with high levels of MSG,” Wallace says.

A review of research conducted by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in 1995 (commissioned by the FDA) found that the symptoms did occur in some sensitive people who consumed 3,000 mg or more of MSG in one sitting without food, but the FDA says that consuming that much is unlikely, given that MSG is used on food, and a typical dish seasoned with MSG has 500 mg or less. In 2017, a report from the European Food Safety Authority noted that symptoms are rarely seen at intakes below 3,000 mg and concluded that an acceptable daily intake is 14.5 mg per pound of body weight (2,175 mg for a 150-pound person). 

We tried: Ac’cent (480 mg of sodium per teaspoon). A ⅛-teaspoon serving has 500 mg of MSG and 60 mg of sodium. Testers thought it added a savory, brothlike taste instead of a salty one. They liked it on popcorn, saying that it gave the snack a “pleasant savory flavor.” The only downside was that when sprinkled on rice and eggs, it added a slightly metallic note. Be careful shaking it out of the container. “The holes were bigger than what you see on a saltshaker, so the product poured out pretty fast,” Keating says. “Pour some into your hand and then sprinkle on the food.”

3. Nutritional Yeast

A longtime favorite of vegans, nutritional yeast is becoming popular for its nutty, cheesy flavor. It’s the same yeast used in brewing and baking, except that it’s deactivated and often fortified with B vitamins.

Although nutritional yeast isn’t sold as a sodium substitute, its savoriness works as a flavor boost. You can swap it for some of the sodium in many dishes, such as popcorn, eggs, salads, vegetables, and soups, Zumpano says. Plus, even a teaspoon serves up more than a quarter of your daily dose of energy-boosting B vitamins.

We tried: Bob’s Red Mill Large Flake Nutritional Yeast (2 mg of sodium per teaspoon). In all the dishes, testers thought nutritional yeast added a cheesy umami flavor instead of a salty one. Some tasted a yeasty note. The testers preferred nutritional yeast over MSG when it was mixed into eggs; they said it had a better overall flavor.

4. Potassium Chloride

Salt substitutes made from potassium chloride alone look like regular salt and have a salty flavor, but have zero sodium. “But potassium doesn’t activate the same taste cells as sodium,” Breslin says. That’s why people complain that these substitutes often leave a bitter or metallic aftertaste.

Almost all Americans don’t get enough potassium, an important mineral for heart health, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A quarter-teaspoon of this substitute serves up almost 20 percent of your daily needs (4,700 mg).

But, as with “light” salts, speak with your healthcare provider before using potassium chloride if you have kidney issues or are taking medications.

We tried: Nu Salt Salt Substitute (0 mg of sodium per teaspoon). While testers said this imparted a lightly salty flavor, they couldn’t get over the bitterness. Even a ⅛ teaspoon pinch in a cup of rice added an unpleasant taste. In eggs, it was even more noticeable. Some panelists noticed a metallic aftertaste, with one saying she wouldn’t eat the dish if she was served it outside of the test.

5. Liquid Aminos

This liquid seasoning is made by treating soybeans with an acidic solution to break them into amino acids, the building blocks of protein. It’s also made from fermenting coconut sap with water.

“Liquid aminos have a savory, umami flavor,” Zumpano says. It’s often advertised as an alternative to soy sauce. You can also use it to flavor marinades, soups, and vegetables. But check the nutrition label first: At around 300 mg per teaspoon, soy aminos can have a sodium content similar to that of regular soy sauce, and more than light soy sauce. Coconut aminos contain less, with roughly 70 mg per teaspoon.

We tried: Bragg Liquid Aminos Soy Protein Seasoning (310 mg of sodium per teaspoon). The panelists thought that it had a brothy, umami flavor in rice and eggs. It fared better as a substitute for soy sauce than it did for salt. When compared against soy sauce on vegetables, the testers said it wasn’t an exact replica, but they liked the taste.

6. Seaweed Flakes

Sea vegetables, such as seaweed, algae, and kelp, are dried into flakes or granules. They deliver a briny, salty flavor for 95 percent less sodium than salt.

Seaweed is a good source of nutrients, including fiber, magnesium, and iron. In fact, 1 teaspoon of seaweed flakes contains all the iodine, a mineral important for thyroid health, you need in a day. Drying seaweed intensifies the flavor, so a little goes a long way, Keating says.

We tried: Maine Coast Sea Seasonings Kelp Granules Salt Alternative (115 mg of sodium per teaspoon). According to the testers, these deep-green flakes didn’t add much saltiness. Instead, the fishy flavor of seaweed was pronounced (think sushi rolls), and our testers found it overwhelming in the foods we tried.

Sharon Liao

Sharon Liao

Sharon Liao is a writer and editor specializing in health, nutrition, and fitness. She lives in Redondo Beach, Calif.