Many of us crave salt -- so much so that we tend to overdo it, says registered dietitian Pam Kelle of Chattanooga.
"Nine out of 10 Americans use too much salt," she says, adding that the problem stems from the fact that many people shake salt on food before they even taste it.
"It's a habit. Salt shakers are on most kitchen tables in American and certainly in most restaurants," Kelle says.
Salt in itself isn't so bad; actually, we need it for metabolic purposes to keep us going. It helps with muscle control and relaxation as well as nerve transmission and function. It inhibits bacterial growth, too. If we don't get enough salt, muscle weakness, poor concentration, dehydration and loss of appetite may result.
But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Excess salt, Kelle says, increases the risk or stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure.
We should have no more than 2,400 milligrams of salt per day -- one teaspoon. If you are already at risk for heart disease or high blood pressure, you should lower your sodium intake to no more than 1,500 milligrams per day. But Kelle says the average intake is more in the neighborhood of 3,500 milligrams daily.
"The South is known for being in the stroke belt," Kelle says. "The typical Southern fare of fried foods and 'seasoned' foods almost always includes far more salt than recommended. And if you consume snack food and fast food, it will not take long to eat more salt than is good for you."
Again, the problem is the habit ... we taste salt, we expect it and we want our food to have that familiar salty taste.
When a dish needs that extra something, don't just reach for the salt. Caroline Wright, author of "Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals," offers several tips on how to add flavor to your dishes without salt.
• Crush or toasting dried spices: Dried spices can lose their flavor over time, especially in the heat of the kitchen. Release their flavor by crushing whole spices or toasting ground ones while you're cooking so their oils are reinvigorated and make a fresh contribution to your dish.
• Olive oil: A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil to top soup, pizza or pasta just before serving brings a bright, fresh flavor to the dish.
• Global pantry spices: Try different spice blends from around the world to bring unexpected flavor to your cooking, and revitalize your favorite dishes without switching up your routine. Try Szechuan peppercorns, harissa paste or garam masala for a change of taste.
• Brown your meat: Browning meat at a high temperature before it is cooked more gently until done gives it a flavorful, caramelized layer on the outside of the meat. It brings a lot of flavor and texture to your dinner without adding any extra ingredients. All it takes is a hot, heavy pan and a bit of patience.
• Seasoned breadcrumbs: Seasoned, toasted breadcrumbs are a delicious secret ingredient that lend a lot of texture to a variety of dishes, including soups, salads and pasta dishes.
• Flavored oils: Blending olive oil with fresh herbs brings up the flavor with just a little help from a blender. The oils take on a beautiful hue and flavor, a spoonful makes any salad or soup look artful, and the flavor is outstanding.
• Fresh herbs: Since they are best added once the cooking is through, fresh herbs are a great last-minute ingredient to have on hand.
• Vinaigrettes: A good vinaigrette is not only a great dressing for a salad, but also makes a good marinade for vegetables or thin slices of meat, or use one as an extra spoonful of flavor over a pizza. To make a vinaigrette, use one part oil to three parts acid, but experiment with different oils and vinegars. The best part is that you can keep your favorite one in a jar in your refrigerator, ready to use whenever you need.
Kelle also offers some additional advice to lower salt intake:
• To consume less, do not add salt to cooking water or season food while preparing.
• Shake salt on your palm first, then sprinkle on top of food.
• Keep the shaker off the table.
• If the food tastes salty, it's very salty.
• Do not consume more than one salty food per day.
• Pickles, cheese, deli meats and hot dogs, sauces, gravies and condiments are notoriously high in salt.
Contact Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.