Food Facts: Is Your Reduced-Sodium Diet Bland and Boring? Eleven Natural Substitutes to Help You Not Miss Salt

I confess; I consume way too much sodium. Some people have a sweet tooth; I have a salt tooth. My husband once joked that I could probably measure my blood pressure in psi. So, I’m the last one to judge others for having to cut back on their sodium intake.

This post isn’t going to be a medical treatise on what sodium does to the body; if you’re reading this post, you already know you need to cut back and why. What I can do is give you some ideas on how to replace, or at least minimize, the amount of salt you use in your daily nourishment, and meanwhile experience new appealing *natural* flavour combinations that you can start using instead of the salt shaker. If you do want to learn more about the why and the how, however, I have attached a number of links at the bottom, listing many of the online resources I used in order to write this post. My thanks to all the content creators!

I mentioned in a previous post, Back to Basics: Herbs, Spices, and Seasonings, that you can elevate your cooking and baking by paying attention to and using the information about the five major tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami). In this case of substitution, I suggest that you “lean on” the other four tastes to replace the one you are trying to avoid. Let’s discuss those three main categories (herbs, spices, and seasonings) for which there are excellent sodium substitutions.

Herbs

Fresh herbs have bright pungent flavours that do well in replacing many sodium-laden preparations; most dried herbs will also do in a pinch, especially when fresh are hard to come by (though I’d always recommend a little window herb garden for even the smallest of homes). While there are numerous herbs that would be specifically good for one dish or another, I’ve chosen a few of the most widely known and available examples, along with links to recipes.

Rosemary: an aromatic herb with a piney, sometimes lemony fragrance and slightly oily texture when handled. There are several varieties of rosemary, but only a relative few are considered culinary quality; the rest are landscaping shrubs, which, while they can be used as culinary herbs, are inferior due to their growing pattern and less oily properties. Use this strongly fragranced herb sparingly either fresh or dried, as it can easily overpower other flavours. Dried rosemary is much more concentrated, as are all dried herbs, so use about ⅓ as much. Dried rosemary is also somewhat “pointy” and sharp to the gums, so I’d recommend crushing or mincing it finely before using it. Whole sprigs of fresh rosemary can be roasted with root veggies like potatoes, parsnips, onions, carrots and similar. Best used directly as whole sprigs on grilled meats or utilize in a marinade, such as red wine and rosemary steak marinade, in or on breads (see: rosemary pull-apart bread machine loaf or as a pizza topping, tomato based sauces, and potato or egg-based dishes like Skillet Bagel Eggs with Rosemary Butter.

Mint: a refreshing and zingy herb with cooling properties that is very popular in international cuisine; it works well in both sweet and savoury dishes. There are as many as 600 varieties of mint on this planet, and have many distinct flavours and properties. Fresh mint leaves are best, and it grows extremely well in kitchen gardens; be sure to plant it in a container or it will take over your plot! Mint works well in soups such as 5-ingredient pea and mint soup, cold pastas, salads, marinades and sauces (see: grilled lamb chops with mint chimichurri), and equally as well in ice creams, chocolates, cookies and cakes. Fresh mint is especially tasty paired with steamed vegetables like peas, new potatoes, green beans or carrots.

Basil: this peppery and fresh yet often sweet tasting herb is often described as balanced between both sweet and savoury flavours; it is delicious both fresh and dried. Culinary basil grows well in kitchen gardens or in pots on windowsills, and is best-suited to frequent pruning; the more you use it, the more leaves will grow. There are a multitude of varieties of basil (as many as 150), all with different flavour profiles. Standard sweet basil is the main ingredient in pesto, and many dressings, sauces and marinades. Basil is often the star of the show in Mediterranean cooking, and fresh or dried basil features prominently in tomato-based dishes, pasta sauces and pizza base ingredients. In South and SouthEast Asian cuisine, Thai basil is used in fresh spring rolls and noodle dishes such as low-sodium Thai drunken noodle bowls.

Spices

Spices are a fantastic salt substitute, as long as they themselves are not laden with sodium, like many prepared spice blends. It’s always best to make your own spice concoctions, as you can be sure what’s in it if you made it yourself. Here are some examples, along with links to a few recipes.

Garlic (fresh, granulated or powder): Garlic is a pungent, savoury spice (that is technically classified as an herb) that boosts flavour without increasing sodium content. Garlic, whether fresh (raw, cooked, roasted, pickled, or stewed), granulated or powder form, is delicious in soups and stews, stir-fries, pastas, sauces, and marinades, not to mention simply sprinkled in its various forms over eggs, vegetables or meats.

What’s even better, this allium is loaded with health benefits. Studies show that garlic compounds may lower blood pressure, boost immunity, and promote brain health

Pro-tip: cut back on the salt in your recipe and instead double the amount of garlic (especially delicious in tomato-based sauces and marinades!). These recipes for Lemony Garlic Shrimp Pasta, Garlic Tomato Chickpeas or Cajun Garlic Chicken Thighs (with a whopping 12 cloves of garlic!) are delicious and will ensure that no vampires visit you in the night.

Pepper (white, black, pink, green, and red): Black pepper is made by grinding peppercorns, which are dried berries from the vine Piper nigrum. It has a sharp and mildly spicy flavor that goes well with many dishes. Ground, dried and cooked peppercorns have been used since antiquity, both for flavour and as a traditional medicine. Black pepper is the world’s most traded spice, and is one of the most common spices added to cuisines around the world. Its spiciness is due to the chemical compound piperine, which is a different kind of spicy from the capsaicin characteristic of chili peppers. It is ubiquitous in the modern world as a seasoning.

Piperine is a plant compound that is a potent antioxidant, that also has anti-inflammatory properties and may improve brain function, improve cholesterol levels and blood sugar control, and has potential chronic disease and cancer fighting properties, though human studies are in process to prove these definitively for humans.

Pro-Tip: Simply use more pepper and less salt in your savoury dishes; try out different peppercorns or a mixture of several, and find your favourite, like perhaps this zingy Black Pepper Chicken recipe from Gimme Some Oven (one of my favourite recipe websites).

Onion (fresh, dried minced, or powder):

The onion, also known as the bulb onion or common onion, is a vegetable that is the most widely cultivated species of the genus Allium (which also includes garlic and chives). 

There are a recorded 21 distinct types of onions available across the world, with widely different flavour profiles and best usage/preparation methods; even if you don’t prefer onions, there’s likely one out there to tease your taste buds.

Onions are nutrient-dense (low in calories but high in vitamins and minerals); one whole, medium onion has about 44 calories but is particularly high in B and C vitamins and is a good source of potassium.

As with garlic, onions offer an umami flavour boost to almost any savoury recipe. Dried minced onion or onion powder is more potent than fresh onion and can easily be swapped for salt in stir-fries, soups, stews, dips, and salsas; however, whether fresh or dried, onions are a full-flavour powerhouse whether they are playing supporting role in your meal, as in this delicious recipe for Skillet Browned Cabbage, or are the star of the show, such as this recipe for Low-Sodium French Onion Soup.

Pro-tip: try different onions than your usual selections to mix it up in the kitchen; you never know what your new favourite may be!

Chili Peppers/Flakes:

Chili peppers are perennial shrubs, the fruit of plants belonging to the genus Capsicum, and are members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. While capsicum fruits have been a part of human diets since about 7,500 BC and are one of the oldest cultivated crops in the Americas, chilis were completely unknown to most of the world until Christopher Columbus made his way to the New World in 1492 in search of a new trade route to Asia. Nowadays, chili peppers are widely used by a quarter of the earth’s population every day in both traditional medicine and numerous regional cuisines as a spice to add heat and flavour to foods.

There are five domesticated species of chili peppers, with a multitude of varieties, cultivars, and methods of preparation that have different names for culinary use. The substances that give chili peppers their pungency (spicy heat) when ingested or applied topically are capsaicin and several related chemicals collectively called capsaicinoids. When peppers are consumed by mammals such as humans, capsaicin binds with pain receptors in the mouth and throat, potentially evoking pain via spinal relays to the brainstem and thalamus where heat and discomfort are perceived. The intensity of the “heat” of chili peppers is commonly reported in Scoville heat units (SHU). – Wikipedia

Fresh chili peppers have some pretty amazing health benefits to consumption as well; according to environmental website Conserve Energy Future in their article on the 13 health benefits of chili peppers:

Health benefits of Chili pepper includes improves digestive health and metabolism, alleviates migraines, may reduce risks of cancer, fights fungal infections, colds, and the flu, provides joint pain relief, fights inflammation, supports cardiovascular health, may improve cognitive functions, may improve longevity, promotes red blood cell growth, improve ocular health and keeps your hair and skin healthy and more.

Regardless of your level of spice tolerance, chili peppers can add a festival of flavour to your meals, and in fact completely upgrade a recipe from blah to Wow! Try making your own hot sauce for some buffalo wings or my recipe for buffalo cauliflower wraps, or add chilis to a favourite recipe to kick it up a notch or two. Add hot sauce or red pepper flakes to your scrambled eggs, or make one of a bazillion recipes available for chili.

Pro-Tip: did you know that non-mammals such as birds do not possess the taste receptors that mammals do and are therefore biologically unable to register the effects of capsaicin? This means they can consume the hottest of peppers with impunity.

Seasonings

Seasonings are widely varied flavour enhancers that can significantly alter the profile of your foods. While many pre-made seasonings are often chock-full of sodium, making your own is easy, quick, and highly customizable to your specific tastes or needs. And while you can recreate pre-made seasonings, it’s also exciting to maybe create something uniquely your own (have you ever seen basil-citrus pepper? Neither have I, but it sure would be fun to try it out!)

Citrus Juice or Zest:

Citrus is more than just lemon or lime; while that may be what the average cook thinks of when considering citrus for their food flavouring enhancement, there are many other citrus fruits that can be used for a quick pop of freshness to many recipes.

According to Wikipedia:

Citrus is a genus of flowering trees and shrubs in the rue family, Rutaceae. Plants in the genus produce citrus fruits, including important crops such as oranges, lemons, grapefruits, pomelos, and limes. The genus Citrus is native to South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Melanesia, and Australia. Various citrus species have been utilized and domesticated by indigenous cultures in these areas since ancient times. From there its cultivation spread into Micronesia and Polynesia by the Austronesian expansion (c. 3000–1500 BCE); and to the Middle East and the Mediterranean (c. 1200 BCE) via the incense trade route, and onwards to Europe.

Wikipedia

Citrus adds a lively hit of acid to your cooking, which is often called “brightness”…but what does this actually mean? It means that where sour taste hits on your tongue (the two sides, see image above), it sharpens or balances out the flavours of a dish that may be too heavy otherwise. A great example is adding a squirt of lemon juice to your tomato-based pasta sauce just at the end of cooking (and if you’re not doing this already, why not?). The acidity of the lemon juice cuts through the heavy “tomatoe-y” flavour of the sauce and adds just a hint of tang to your tongue. That’s brightness.

Of course, there are plenty of other dishes that actually have citrus front and centre, which preclude the need for sodium due to the massive Big Flavours happening everywhere else. For example, this Low Sodium Citrus Pasta fits the bill beautifully. Or if you’re looking for an aspect of citrus in your meal but not for it to be the showstopper, consider this delicious Citrus Vinaigrette on your side salad. A yummy Pomelo and Basil Cocktail for an aperitif would be a nice pairing as well, or to finish off your dinner, how about a Lemon Meringue Pot, which is like a jar of crustless lemon meringue pie?

Nutritional/Brewer’s Yeast:

Nutritional yeast (or its nickname “nooch“) is a deactivated edible yeast sold in flake or powder form, often in bulk or health food stores. Known for its savoury flavour and cheese-like taste, it works well as a popcorn topper, or mixed into or sprinkled on top of pasta and grain dishes. You can stir it into soups for an umami boost or as a thickener (a twofer!). While you cannot use nutritional yeast as a replacement for active dry yeast in baking breads, you can use it within the recipe as a nutritional and flavour enhancement to your loaves; nooch is a good source of protein, fiber, amino acids, and vitamins.

Vegans and those who eschew dairy products also use it heavily in place of cheese for pasta dishes and cream in products like dips and spreads, as despite its cheesy taste, it’s actually dairy-free.

Using nutritional yeast as a replacement to salt may also have health benefits, as the type of fiber present in nutritional yeast may help lower your cholesterol, potentially lowering your risk of heart disease.

Try using nutritional yeast as a replacement for salt (and high-sodium Parmesan) in your next pasta sauce, or in this delicious Cashew “Cheese” spread which works well with crudité or crackers or smeared over a lovely slice of baguette. With only 1/2 tsp of sea salt for the entire recipe, this “Cheesy” Vegan Roasted Cauliflower from The Roasted Root can be tarted up with whatever extra protein you’d like to add, if you’re worried about making a (gasp!) vegan recipe (though I think it’s perfect the way it is). And of course, I wouldn’t say no to this vegan cheese sauce from Love and Lemons, as it pairs so beautifully with my favourite food ever, macaroni and cheese, yet is virtually guilt-free (not to mention lactose-intolerant friendly!).

Vinegar (white, malt, cider, red wine, balsamic):

Because of its acid content, vinegar can brighten the flavor of many foods. It’s also very low in sodium regardless of the type of vinegar (the highest sodium is 23mg in 100mL of balsamic vinegar) so it can serve as an excellent substitute for salt.

Everyone has at least some type of vinegar in their households, even if it’s used just for cleaning and laundry care (and to be honest, that’s pretty much all white distilled vinegar is good for, in my opinion).

However, not all vinegar is white vinegar; there’s tangy-sharp malt vinegar that goes great on battered fish and chips, apple cider vinegar which is an excellent addition to salad dressings or as it’s own dressing, red or white wine vinegar which adds a fancy punch of flavour to various marinades and dressings, and balsamic vinegar, which has a sharp, tart flavor with a hint of sweetness. Balsamic is the darling of the culinary world, as it brings out a food’s natural flavors which helps minimize the need for salt. Use balsamic vinegar in salad dressings, soups, stews, and marinades for meat and fish. Reducing it in a saucepan over low heat creates a flavourful, concentrated syrup that you can drizzle over fresh tomatoes or roasted vegetables.

What’s even better is buying or making your own infused, or flavoured vinegar; imagine a fruit flavoured vinegar used in a cream cheese dip for fresh fruit, or a scallion-infused vinegar used for a savoury cream cheese dip for your crudités. Check out website Vinegarnut for a wealth of recipes using flavoured vinegars instead of salt.

Infused Oils:

Infused oils, like their vinegar counterparts, are multifunctional powerhouses in your cooking activities; these oils, especially if you have a number of different flavours on hand, can not only lubricate your cooking, but elevate the taste to something else entirely.

Use herb-infused oils for an earthy, herbaceous aroma to your meals, or chili pepper infused oils for a spicy kick. Scallion or green onion infused oil has a great umami flavour that is fantastic in many dishes.

There is a plethora of options for making your own infused oils, and it seems almost silly to give instructions on how to do this, but I will refer you to the marvelous website Leite’s Culinaria, run by foodie and blogger David Leite. He has an excellent post on infused oils that is very much worth a read.

Coconut Aminos:

This unusual umami-bomb of a liquid is an excellent 1:1 substitute for sodium-laden soy sauce (and as a side benefit it’s also soy-free, gluten-free, and vegan). It comes from the rendered-down sap of coconut trees and Philippine sea salt; as such, it contains just 90mg of sodium per teaspoon, which is far less than the 280mg of sodium present in soy sauce or tamari. Coconut aminos also contain 17 amino acids, giving it health benefits beyond those of soy sauce.

Drawbacks to coconut aminos are a flavour difference in comparison to traditional soy sauce (it can be perceived as a sweeter taste/aftertaste), cost and availability, although this is changing recently with the surge in popularity of online ordering. If you still cannot find coconut aminos or it’s too expensive in your area, try making your own; here’s a recipe for a DIY Coconut Aminos Substitute from website RealSimpleGoodLife that is a reasonable substitute.

Coconut aminos are celebrated in paleo, gluten-free, and sodium-reduced diets, as well as vegan and other “healthy lifestyle” diets, such as this yummy recipe for “Soy” Glazed Eggplant, or this delicious sounding Grilled Shrimp with Pad Thai Noodles and Lime Sauce.

With the examples and recipes above, I hope I have shown that it’s possible to put down the salt shaker when you use one or more of these 11 alternatives. Your blood pressure will thank you!

With thanks to the following sources:

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