Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Aug 28 2013 11:20 AM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: A little salt goes a long way to good health

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Columnist Valerie Schultz

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By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist

When we were married for about a month, my husband made the astonishing observation that we were out of Tabasco sauce. Out of Tabasco sauce? My parents had been married for 20 years before they needed their second bottle of Tabasco sauce!

Here was a fundamental difference in our upbringing: In my family, salt was about the only spice ever used, except for the occasional, exotic sprinkle of dried parsley. We didn't even have a pepper shaker on the table. In his family, his mother was an eclectic cook who embraced multicultural recipes. The ethnic dishes she served relied on the zing and aroma of particular herbs and spices. My husband had a far more adventurous palate, and enjoyed far spicier foods than I did, as evidenced by the rapid disappearance of Tabasco sauce in our house.

So today's special observance, which is officially More Herbs, Less Salt Day, was created especially for people like me. This recently conceived commemoration is actually copyrighted by a company called wellcat.com, which focuses on wellness and healthy living. While we do not lack for obscure holidays to recognize throughout the year, this one may be good for us. Amid reports of obesity deaths in the United States being underestimated, our dietary habits are under scrutiny more than ever. What we eat, in some cases, is killing us. We can all use more herbs and less salt in our lives.

Our bodies require a certain amount of salt, of course. Sodium helps the body maintain an optimal balance of fluids, transmits nerve impulses, and affects muscle activity. The kidneys usually balance the amount of sodium in the body, by holding onto sodium when the body's level is low, and by excreting it through urine when the level is high. When the kidneys are not functioning properly, however, sodium can build up in the blood, causing the heart to work harder. A chronic excess of sodium can cause fluid retention, increased blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and congestive heart failure.

Processed foods, as well as liberal use of the salt shaker and other sodium-rich condiments, are common sources of sodium in our diets. The more prepared or processed food we eat, the more sodium we ingest. Sodium can also hide in substances like MSG (monosodium glutamate), baking soda, baking powder, sodium nitrite, and other additives. The new cooking craze known as pink salt, or Himalayan salt, is exactly what this country does not need. Pink salt may be novel and expensive, but it is as much salt as sea salt or plain old table salt. No matter what color salt is, or whence it came, it is still sodium. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, or 1,500 mg for older folks or those with high blood pressure or kidney problems. One tablespoon of soy sauce, by way of illustration, contains about 1,000 mg of sodium.

Tips for reducing the amount of sodium we consume, according to the Mayo Clinic, include eating more fresh foods, which are naturally low in sodium, leaving salt out of recipes whenever possible, purchasing products that are labeled "low sodium," and using herbs, spices and other flavorings to season food.

Hence the observance today. The concept of more herbs and less salt is a recipe for a healthier diet and a healthier life. Herbs and spices in place of salt can bring a new excitement to our cooking, as we experiment with flavors and combinations and amounts. Even something as basic as a scrambled egg becomes interesting when we add thyme or pepper instead of salt. Potatoes roasted with rosemary and olive oil don't need added salt. And is there any more delicious sauce for pasta than a rich green pesto? If you browse recipe books, you'll notice that very rarely is "salt" the flavor called for in a gourmet dish.

While herbs are flavorful and fun, many are also easy to grow, even in a small space. They can provide a gratifying yield from a beginner's garden. We almost always have a pot of fresh basil growing near the kitchen, and over the years we have grown the obligatory parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, along with lovage, lavender, oregano, peppermint and chives. (We have yet to grow cilantro successfully: The seeds don't sprout, or the young plants wither and die. Apparently we don't know cilantro's secret.) Homegrown herbs can motivate delicious changes in the kitchen.

Even before this holiday, my husband, the family chef, has always espoused more herbs and less salt in his cooking. For him, every day is More Herbs, Less Salt Day, for which I am grateful. Even if he does go through Tabasco sauce at an alarming rate.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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