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Healthy Salt Substitute Alternatives vs. Unhealthy Options to Avoid

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Salt substitute - Dr. Axe

If your doctor has recommended that you follow a low-sodium diet, you might be trying figure out, “What can I use in place of salt?” While other types of seasonings and condiments might not taste exactly like real salt, there are a number of healthy salt substitute options that can help improve the taste of your meals, all while keeping your salt/sodium intake down.

Why Is Salt Bad for You?

Many people living in the U.S. and a number of other industrialized countries tend to consume lots of sodium and salt each day, which is found in especially high amounts in packaged, frozen, canned and restaurant-prepared foods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 90 percent of Americans eat more sodium than is recommended for a healthy diet. It’s estimated that the average American adult consumes about nine to 10 grams of salt daily, which equates to about 3,500 to 4,000 milligrams per day — between two and three times the recommended amount.

As long as your diet includes mostly low-sodium foods, adding a bit of natural sea salt (such as real Himalayan sea salt) shouldn’t pose a risk for most people. In fact, everyone needs some salt/sodium in the diet, in combination with other minerals and electrolytes, to support normal cellular, muscular and nerve functions.

However, those who have health conditions such as kidney-related issues or high blood pressure may need to purposefully limit their sodium intake in order to prevent their symptoms from worsening.

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is commonly associated with eating a poor diet that is high in salt. It increases the risk for health problems, including:

  • heart attacks
  • strokes and other vascular diseases
  • kidney/renal failure
  • erectile dysfunction
  • stomach cancer
  • kidney stones
  • osteoporosis

Healthy Salt Substitute Options

Health authorities including the CDC and American Heart Association recommend that most adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily (and ideally about 1,500 milligrams). This equates to about one teaspoon per day of added salt.

How can you get a salty taste without salt? Here are some of the best salt substitute options that can improve the taste of your meals:

  • Fresh herbs and spices — Allowing your taste buds to adjust to lower-salt meals is one of the best steps you can take to lower your sodium intake and improve your health long term. Over time, you should get accustomed to using less salt and will find that you’re more sensitive to it, so a little will go a long way. Using herbs and spices, or homemade salt-free seasoning blends, when you cook is a smart way to boost the flavor of your meals in a healthy way. Homemade salt-free seasoning blends that include oregano, parsley, basil, ginger, turmeric, etc., are among the best salt substitutes for people with high blood pressure, since they have natural anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Acids, including lemon juice/lemon zest, lime juice and orange juice — Acidic flavors, such as lemon juice and vinegars, especially when combined with a healthy fat source like olive oil, make recipes pop without adding many calories at all. They lend a sour taste to meals that helps to balance out other flavors.
  • Flavored vinegars — Just like lemon juice, vinegars can be used to heighten the taste of the marinades, sauces, vegetables, etc. Choose from a variety of kinds based on your preferences, such as sherry vinegar, Champagne vinegar, apple cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar.
  • Garlic and onions (fresh or powdered) — Cooked garlic, onions (including leeks, chives, scallions and other “alliums”) and even ripe tomatoes enhance the taste the foods thanks to their unique enzymes and sulfur-containing compounds. Use them to flavor meat dishes, soups and stews, pasta and rice dishes, etc.
  • Umani powder — These are blends that use ingredients such as dried mushrooms, onions, garlic, nutritional yeast, tamari, seaweeds and spices to improve the taste of a variety of foods. They are popular in Asian cooking and can be found at Asian markets, online or some health food stores. Look for one that contains little salt by checking the sodium content.
  • Homemade bone broth, stocks and gravy — You can help boost both the nutrient content and flavor of meals by cooking them in homemade broth or gravy, such as chicken bone broth, vegetable stock or fish stock. When you make stock at home, as opposed to using a canned type or stock cubes, you can control how much salt you want to add.

Keep in mind that if you’re eating a meal that includes foods high in sodium, such as pickled vegetables like pickles or sauerkraut or natto, you likely won’t need to add any extra salt or salt substitutes. While fermented foods tend to be high in sodium since they are made with brine or sea salt, they also provide nutrients including probiotics, so they can make healthy additions to your diet as long as you can tolerate some salt.

In addition to using the salt substitutes above in place of regular table salt, you can help cut down your sodium intake considerably by eating less packaged, canned and frozen foods; fewer bottled condiments; less processed meats; and by cooking more fresh foods yourself at home.

Unhealthy Salt Alternatives

Is Morton Salt Substitute bad for you? What about Mrs. Dash — is it a good salt substitute?

Makers of many bottled salt substitutes typically swap sodium chloride for potassium chloride.

According to the Pritikin Longevity Center’s website, “Most salt substitutes contain potassium chloride. Brands include Morton Salt Substitute, Nu-Salt, and NoSalt. Potassium chloride tastes somewhat like sodium chloride (salt).”

Potassium is used in place of sodium in these products because it’s a mineral that normally helps lower blood pressure. However, when consumed in this form, potassium chloride can cause complications, including by increasing potassium levels in the body too much.

You’ll want to avoid consuming salt substitutes with potassium chloride on a regular basis if you have diminished kidney function, hypertension or if you take medications including ACE inhibitors and potassium-sparing diuretics. Generally speaking, do not use salt substitutes containing potassium chloride without speaking with your doctor if you have kidney disease, heart disease, liver disease or high blood pressure.

Here’s what you need to know about two popular salt alternatives:

  • MSG (monosodium glutamate) — A half teaspoon of salt has about 1,150 milligrams of sodium compared to about 320 milligrams of sodium in half a teaspoon of MSG. Although authorities consider MSG to be a generally safe salt substitute, some people react badly to it and experience side effects, including nausea, chest pains, and burning sensation in the skin around the neck, face and upper torso. To limit the likelihood of experiencing MSG-related symptoms, try having it in small amounts only occasionally and with a meal that contains carbs and protein.
  • Potassium salts — Potassium salts are those made with potassium chloride, which include popular salt substitutes made by big companies, such as Morton and Mrs. Dash. Potassium chloride is also known as KCl or potassium salt and dissolves in water just like regular salt — plus it has a salty taste.

You do not want to use both potassium chloride salt substitutes and MSG together, since this will contribute too much sodium and chloride to your diet, which is challenging for your body to handle. If you are going to consume MSG or alternatives with potassium chloride, choose one to have in small amounts but not both.

Another potential downside of using alternatives with potassium chloride is that some find them to taste bitter or metallic — plus they may potentially cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas and stomach pains.

How to Use Them

For the most part, you can use your favorite salt substitute just like you would use regular salt. This means using dried herbs and spices when cooking, and adding vinegars and fresh squeezed juices to recipes in whatever way suits your taste buds.

Here are some ways to use the salt substitute options mentioned above in recipe swaps:

  • Sprinkle no-salt seasoning on popcorn, roasted chickpeas or roasted nuts for a healthy snack.
  • When baking, swap out some salt with sodium-free baking powder.
  • Make fresh salad dressing and marinades at home using olive oil, lemon or orange juice, minced garlic, raw honey, flavored vinegars, and herbs.
  • Make your own homemade salt-free seasoning blend using a mix of dried spices/herbs. For an all-purpose blend, combine basil, parsley, savory, thyme, onion powder, black pepper, paprika and sage. To make a salt-free Mexican blend, try adding cayenne pepper and cumin. And for an Asian-inspired blend, try adding ginger, red pepper flakes and Chinese five spice.

Another thing to keep in mind is the positive effects that a high-potassium diet can have on blood pressure and other health markers if you’ve been told to follow a low-salt diet. Eating a diet that includes plenty of potassium-rich foods — such as bananas, avocado, potatoes, beans, yogurt, leafy greens, coffee, and many fruits and vegetables — can help lower blood pressure and reduce the need for hypertension medications.

Conclusion

  • A salt substitute is an herb, spice or condiment that is used in place of regular table salt in order to help reduce someone’s sodium intake.
  • Some of the best tasting salt alternatives include lemon and lime juice, vinegars, all types of herbs and spices, bone broth, and fermented foods.
  • People with high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disease need to be especially careful about lowering their salt intake. Some use alternatives such as MSG and products with potassium chloride instead, however these are not always safe when eaten in large amounts.
  • Most adults are advised to consume up to 2,300 milligrams of salt/sodium per day or about one teaspoon of salt. By cutting out added table salt, packaged foods, frozen foods, fast food, canned foods and restaurant meals from your diet, you’ll be well on you way to staying under the recommended limit.
Josh Axe

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