Nine ways to cut down on sodium, like avoiding the salt shaker

Cut back on sodium to keep your blood pressure low.

Most people have heard that advice more than once, but it’s something that many struggle with. It’s not as though you can just put down the saltshaker. Most of the sodium we eat—71 percent—comes from packaged and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s often in amounts higher than you’d expect. In fact, even if you choose otherwise healthy foods, sodium can stack up pretty quickly.

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For instance, have an egg on a Thomas’ 100% Whole Wheat Bagel with a slice of cheddar for breakfast (635 mg sodium) and a Greek Salad from Panera Bread (1,190 mg) at lunch and you’ve gotten nearly 80 percent of the sodium you should have daily—less than 2,300 mg is the recommendation—before dinner. No surprise, then, that a CDC report shows that on a typical day, Americans 51 and older consume 3,136 mg of sodium.

As a nutritionist and a member of CR’s food testing team, I’ve spent a lot of time researching sodium and pinpointing the best ways to help people reduce their intake without resigning themselves to a diet full of bland-tasting foods. These are the strategies I recommend to others and use myself.

1. Cut Back Gradually
Give your taste buds time to adjust. If you start by using just a little less salt, or switching to a few lower-sodium products, you probably won’t notice the difference. As your palate recalibrates, you can cut back some more.

2. Know Label Lingo
“Low sodium” means 140 mg or less per serving; “salt or sodium free,” less than 5 mg per serving. But here’s where it gets tricky: “No salt added” means that no salt or sodium was added during processing, but a product may still have sodium because the mineral is found naturally in some foods. And “reduced sodium” or “lightly salted/light in sodium” foods may or may not be good choices. Those terms mean the food has at least 25 or 50 percent less sodium, respectively, than the regular product. But it may still have a lot of sodium. For example, if the regular version has 800 mg of sodium, the reduced-sodium product could still have 600 mg.

3. Do Some Sleuthing
For many packaged foods, it pays to compare the sodium content. Even within the same brand, it may vary quite widely. For example, Near East Spanish Rice Pilaf has 910 mg of sodium per serving, while the brand’s Wild Mushroom & Herb Rice Pilaf has 480 mg. That’s a big savings, but even shaving off 50 or 100 mg per serving adds up.

4. Pump Up the Potassium
Potassium reduces the blood pressure-raising effect of sodium. A diet based mostly on whole, unprocessed foods will provide plenty of potassium. Good sources include fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains, dairy products, fish, and lean meats.

5. Choose Stock Over Broth
In CR’s tests of chicken broths and stocks, we found that regular broths can contain up to 370 mg more sodium per cup than stocks of the same brand.

6. Rinse Canned Foods
Canned vegetables and beans can be high in sodium. If you don’t opt for lower-sodium versions, rinse these foods in a colander, which can eliminate up to 40 percent of the sodium.

7. Have a Restaurant Strategy
I never salt my meals at restaurants because most restaurant dishes are already pretty heavily salted. Sauces and dressings are often packed with sodium—ask for those on the side so that you can control how much you use. And don’t be afraid to ask for your food to be prepared with less or no salt.

8. Taste Before You Salt
Many people reach for salt out of habit. But if you taste your food first, you may find it to be flavorful enough without it.

9. Don’t Use Salt in Cooking
Flavor foods with herbs and spices instead. Consider dried basil and parsley, red pepper flakes, or a spritz of lemon or lime juice. If you want some salt in your dish, sprinkle on a little bit before you eat it. When the salt is on the surface of food, you’ll get more of a salt hit. And you can try using kosher or sea salt. Although these have as much sodium as table salt by weight, the crystals are larger and may give you more of a saltier flavor, so you can use a little less.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

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