VEGETARIAN JOURNAL'S FOODSERVICE UPDATE

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Vegetarian Journal's Foodservice Update
Healthy Tips and Recipes for Institutions

Volume VI, Number 2 Spring 1998  

REDUCED SODIUM, INCREASED FLAVOR
By Nancy Berkoff, R.D., Ed.D.

Sodium is an essential mineral that is responsible for the regulation of normal fluid balance in the body. Before refrigeration and chemical methods of preservation, salt was an important preserver of food. Salt is very desirable in the kitchen for its ability to enhance the flavors of foods and to add that salty "zing" to which we have become accustomed.

We are all born with a taste for salt and are also taught to like it even more! Today, some commercial baby and toddler foods are still prepared with salt; therefore, you should ask for an ingredient list before purchasing any new product. A certain amount of sodium is necessary in the diet, and this can be obtained from vegetables (tomatoes, celery, and beets are higher than most in sodium) and from drinking water. Americans usually do not lack sodium; we are usually attempting to cut down on it.

Which foods are higher in sodium? All processed foods (canned and frozen) will have sodium in them (except for fruit, which relies on sugar for preservation and taste). So once again, read the labels. Pickled items (cucumbers, chilies, capers, olives, etc.), cold cereals, commercially prepared baked goods, instant hot cereals, and soup bases will all contain sodium unless specifically stated that they do not. Commercially prepared sauces and condiments (ketchup, mustard, salad dressings, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, mirin, etc.), and snack foods (like tortilla chips or microwave popcorn) are also high in sodium.

A big source of anxiety (for the customer or patient) and frustration (for the chef or food service department) is that if the salt is taken out, so is the flavor. If we think about the array of flavors we seek to achieve from each menu item, we can choose the appropriate seasonings to enhance them. Salt is just an easy way out (and if we're in food service, we must not be looking for the easy way out!).

What exactly does "high" in sodium mean? For your healthy customers or patients, the USDA recommends no more than 2500 milligrams of sodium (about one teaspoon) per day. In many facilities this is billed as a "low salt" or "no added salt" diet and may be offered as the house diet. Sodium restriction may be as limited as 250 milligrams per day for critically ill cardiac and renal patients. Low sodium diets are generally prepared without salt or baking soda, regular canned veggies, pickled veggies, canned tomato products, sauerkraut, prepared salad dressings, instant hot cereal or cold cereal (except Shredded Wheat, which has always been made without salt, or special low sodium products), snack foods (like potato chips), instant dessert mixes (which can contain monosodium glutamate and sodium-containing preservatives), and convenience mixes (like an instant rice pilaf mix).

If you decide to purchase specialty products, label terminology is important to know. A "sodium-free" product is to have less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving, a "very low sodium" product has 35 milligrams or less, and a "low sodium" item has 140 milligrams or less.

A "reduced sodium" product is processed to have 75% less sodium than its regular counterpart. "Unsalted" is processed without the normal amount of salt and "low salt" is made with less salt than the regular variety.

How about salt itself? Regular table salt is sodium chloride and is "harvested" from salt mines or the ocean. It is usually processed to be fine-grained. Iodized salt is table salt with the addition of sodium or potassium iodide, necessary for the health of the thyroid gland. If you prefer to get your iodine from the source, eat vegetables harvested from the ocean. Kosher salt has just sodium chloride and undergoes little to no processing (and is coarse-grained for that reason). Sea salt is the sodium chloride left when ocean water is allowed to evaporate. All of these salts have a high amount of sodium. Light salt or salt replacements will have varying amounts of salt; read the labels.

Make a commitment to learn about the natural flavors in menu ingredients and in fresh and dried herbs and spices. Check your walk-ins and your pantries to be sure you have flavor-ammunition. Savory herbs such as basil, bay leaf, thyme, lemon balm, savory, epazote, and cilantro can jazz up casseroles, soups, and sauces. Chilies and peppers (fresh or dried) add liveliness to ethnic and other dishes, as do fresh or dried ginger, garlic, horseradish, powdered curry blends, paprika, and peppercorns (they come in white, yellow, pink, and red, in addition to basic black). Citrus (lime, lemon, grapefruit, and tangerine) juice, juice concentrates, and zests add the sharpness of salt without the sodium. So do vinegars and wines. The onion family, including leeks, shallots, red, white, and yellow onions, sweet onions, chives, and scallions add aroma and robustness.

Vegan desserts are not usually a sodium dilemma, as soy and rice beverages used in their preparation are much lower in sodium than their animal counterparts. If a stringent sodium restriction is necessary, you may investigate some alternative baking ingredients, such as potassium bicarbonate (instead of regular baking soda), but you will have to experiment with your current recipes, as the potassium does not act exactly like its salty cousin.

The key to reducing the salt and enhancing the flavor in your menus, as you can see, is to prepare as many items from scratch as possible. Prepared low sodium products are usually more costly and tend to taste flat. You can do a much better job than the big conglomerates. Rely on fresh produce (and properly stored frozen veggies) for optimum flavor. Make a promise to never cook just with water, when a vegetable stock, juice or herb combination can be used; this would include veggies, grains and soups.

Put color on the plate (if it looks flat, guaranteed it will be perceived as tasting flat)- that ring of red or green bell pepper, slice of pink grapefruit or orange or tomato wedge will liven up the dish. No salt? No problem!

To flavor specific foods, get a good seasoning chart and post it in the food prep area of your kitchen. Here are some suggestions to get you started:


Excerpts from the Spring 1998 Issue:


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