Sunday, March 22, 2009

Low Sodium Supermarket Dining: Dairy Aisle

Just a reminder, the goal of this series of posts is to find ways to create a truly low sodium diet using regular grocery store products, including convenience & processed foods. Together we’ll “visit” the different aisles of a typical grocery store and discover how many easily available items can be used and modified to fit a low sodium diet. First stop: THE DAIRY AISLE

Buttery Spreads

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that every grocery store carries unsalted butter. Nothing can beat the taste of butter. The bad news is that just about all those vegetable oil spreads that purport to be “heart healthy” contain too much sodium for anything but the thinnest smear on morning toast, anywhere from 80 – 120 mg. sodium per tablespoon.

Many grocery stores carry a product similar to Challenge Whipped Unsalted Butter. This has no added salt but is a bit more spreadable than plain stick butter. Another Challenge product combines butter and canola oil for better spreadability. Challenge Spreadable Butter has only 70 mg. sodium per tablespoon.

Smart Balance supposedly has a low sodium spread with only 30 mg/tbsp, but I haven't seen it anywhere. The Smart Balance spreads with Extra Virgin Olive Oil have 70 mg. sodium per tbsp. Although I have found these products at my local grocery stores, they may not be readily available elsewhere. (For another low sodium spread option, check out this POST about Kerrygold Reduced Fat Butter.)

If you’re hankering after one of the supposedly healthier vegetable oil spreads, compare sodium content and pick one that has between 70 – 80 mgs. per tablespoon. And watch your portions. Don’t go overboard. Too thick a spread on your toast or too big a dollop on your vegetables means too much salt ingested. My advice would be to stick with unsalted butter. After all, mankind has been consuming butter for thousands of years. It’s a good choice with lots of flavor and no weird ingredients; plus it’s available everywhere. Nothing tastes better than vegetables, potatoes, or pasta drizzled with browned butter. And even the lightest smear of real butter on bread is out of this world.

If the thought of using butter sends shivers up your spine, then make your own salt free buttery spread. Just blend two sticks of unsalted butter with 1/2 cup of your favorite “heart healthy” vegetable oil. Let the butter soften and dribble in the oil until everything is blended. You can soften the butter a bit in the microwave and then use a dinner fork, whisk, or electric hand mixer for beating in the oil. The result is a tasty spreadable mixture that’s also good for sautéing and contains some of those ubiquitous “heart healthy” oils. For lower calories, check out this homemade version: Low Sodium Butter Spread.


Cheese can be a problem with low sodium diets. Most cheese delivers anywhere from 170 mg. to over 400 mg. sodium per 1 oz. serving. And low sodium cheeses are hard to find in most grocery stores. So what’s a cheese lover to do?

First things first – remember flavor! When you’re on a low sodium diet, you need to always be punching up the flavor. So very mild cheeses like Monterey Jack, Muenster, or Colby are not the best choices. They’re lovely and melt well, but they don’t add much in the way of taste. Sharp cheddars are zesty; Parmesan, blue, & feta cheese deliver a strong punch too. But these more flavorful cheeses are also more salty.

One easy solution is to combine a more flavorful and salty cheese with a lower sodium cheese. Swiss cheese (sold in blocks or chunks) is naturally low in sodium, usually about 60 mg. per oz. Chunks of Swiss can be found at almost all grocery stores, in the refrigerated self service section and at the deli counter. Check the labels for the brand with the lowest sodium content.

So when you want to sprinkle some cheese on a casserole or make a cheese sauce or whatever, combine equal parts of extra sharp cheddar and Swiss. Parmesan & Swiss complement each other too. The resulting flavor will be good, but the sodium content will be lowered. Also, remember portion control. If you use less cheese, you’ll also be consuming less sodium. So be sure to use the cheese where it will have the most impact, usually as a topping.  And try my Pasta Sprinkle recipe for a crispy, yet tasty topping.

You can shred cheddar as needed or even buy the pre-shredded cheese. Just remember to combine it with some lower sodium Swiss. Unfortunately Swiss cheese doesn’t come pre-shredded, so you’ll have to grate it yourself.

For sandwich cheese, get some sliced Swiss or lacey Swiss at the refrigerated self service section or at the deli counter. You won’t find anything else as low in sodium and most grocery stores have a selection of two or three different kinds of block Swiss ready for slicing. Ask the counter person to give you the sodium content of each variety and pick the brand with the lowest count. You don’t need to get overly thick slices either. For the most part, Swiss cheese slices don’t stick together so they’re easy to deal with.

Most grocery stores also carry fresh mozzarella. Its sodium content can sometimes be as low as 25 mg. per oz. (check the labels, though). It’s usually a whole lot better, sodium wise, than regular mozzarella. However, because it’s fresh, it’s also very soft. It doesn’t grate well, but cutting into cubes is a good strategy. Then you can slice it for using in dishes like pizza and lasagna. It’s also a bit watery, so blot it well before using. If you can’t find a low sodium fresh mozzarella, just combine equal parts of shredded regular mozzarella and shredded Swiss. Some stores also carry smoked fresh mozzarella. This is a great product when you want to impart a different flavor. Great in salads!

Most ricotta cheese often is fairly low sodium and can be used in pasta dishes like lasagna and stuffed shells, in enchilada fillings, and casseroles. When making a filling, add some chopped fresh spinach, mushrooms, or other vegetables to stretch the cheese and bring the sodium content down. Sauté them first in a bit of oil to eliminate excess water.

Cottage cheese is a good product, but don’t use regular cottage cheese. It’s way too salty. Unfortunately, unsalted cottage cheese is hard to find. So far I’ve only been able to buy Lucerne unsalted cottage cheese at Safeway. Check your local grocery stores. If you can find it, by all means use it. It can be used like ricotta cheese in pasta dishes, enchilada fillings, and casseroles. You can add a couple of spoonfuls to scrambled eggs or omelets. You can “stretch” store bought dips and spreads with unsalted cottage cheese or make your own homemade dips. You can toss it with hot pasta or add it to tuna sandwich filling. The possibilities are truly endless.

Cream cheese is not too bad sodium wise, anywhere from 105 - 110 mg. per oz. Whipped cream cheese is even lower in sodium because the extra air from whipping is salt free. An added bonus is that the whipped version is easier to spread. Just watch the portions, spread thinly, and check the labels. If you want it flavored, you’re better off doing it yourself. You can add herbs & spices for a savory spread or a favorite jam for a sweet spread. For better spreadability (and a bit less sodium), soften the cream cheese block a little in the microwave and then blend in some heavy cream using a dinner fork. Some goat cheese brands are pretty decent as far as sodium content too. Montchevre Natural is only 40 mg sodium per ounce. They can be used in the same way as cream cheese and are good crumbled onto salads.

As mentioned before, the key to using Parmesan cheese, feta cheese, and any other higher sodium cheese is portion control. Use just enough to give a flavor boost. For example, use just a sprinkling of blue cheese crumbles on top of a salad dressed with a salt free vinaigrette instead of globs of creamy blue cheese dressing. And use the cheese where it will have the most impact. Remember that the less you use, the less sodium you will consume. All in all, relying on grocery store cheese is not an impediment to a low sodium diet.

Milk Products

Heavy cream comes in handy and is found at every grocery store. Just a bit can enrich and add sumptuousness to any so-so sauce or gravy. It doesn’t curdle when heated so it’s great as a last minute touch for all kinds of things

Sour cream is another staple that’s easily found in local grocery stores. The regular style usually has less sodium than the low fat version. It’s another product that adds rich flavor and texture to foods. And its wonderful tang perks up low sodium dishes. Just be sure to have it at room temperature and add it slowly to hot foods. You can also use sour cream when making any kind of creamy salad like potato salad, coleslaw, or tuna salad. Cut the salad’s sodium content by using half prepared mayonnaise and half sour cream.

Sour cream can be used to make wonderfully easy low sodium dips. Forget about Lipton Onion Soup Mix or Knorr Vegetable Soup Mix. Combine plain sour cream with a spoonful of dried toasted onions, about 2-3 packets of Herb-Ox salt free beef bouillon granules, and a couple of dashes of low sodium Worcestershire sauce for a much lower sodium onion dip. Or combine sour cream with fresh/dried herbs or your favorite spice blends. For real convenience, you can also combine equal parts sour cream and an already prepared dip. Not as low sodium as homemade but better than the unmodified store bought versions.

Plain unflavored yogurt can be used in the same way as sour cream. It’s a bit tangier though and not quite as creamy. You can find plain yogurt everywhere.

You can add sour cream or plain yogurt to creamy style prepared salad dressings to cut down the sodium content. Sour cream, yogurt, or buttermilk also add a nice tang to mashed potatoes made without salt too. Be sure to compare labels, though, when buying buttermilk. Knudsen brand has only 130 mg. sodium per cup, but other brands are much higher.

Watch out for “lite” or lower fat dairy products. When fat is removed, taste & texture suffer. Manufacturers make up for that by adding salt, so be sure to check the labels. When you’re on a low sodium diet, you’re often better off eating less of a full fat product.

Having an assortment of easily available dairy items in the fridge is helpful when preparing low sodium meals. Just a touch of butter, cream, sour cream, cheese, etc. can enliven and enrich just about any ho-hum dish. Plus many dairy products can be used to lighten the sodium content of supermarket convenience & prepared foods.


paula said...

Thank you so much! We just started a low sodium diet, and you blog is saving me a lot of time in the grocery store.

shambo said...

Paula, thank you for your kind words. Good luck with your new low sodium life.

dining room table said...

Everyone should read this post. That low sodium diet is so important. I know lot of people who is looking for that kind of product.

shambo said...

Dining, I agree with you that everyone should try to cut their salt intake. It's just a matter of thinking creatively and not reaching for the salt shaker as the only flavor enhancement.

Byron Hauck said...

This is a great post. I just wanted to respond to the last comment and point out that a far bigger pitfall than "reaching for the salt shaker" is going out to eat. A salad at Applebees can have as much as 4000 mg of sodium. That's why it's even more important to know how to cook low-sodium at home: you're not going to get low sodium food anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

Nancy's Organic Spreadable Cultured Cream Cheese: SODIUM per Two Tablespoons: only 35 mg!!! Another Organic cream cheese I found at Earth Fare had around 150 mg per 2 Tbspns. Buy Nancy's & enjoy yourself!

shambo said...

Thanks for that info about Nancy's cream cheese. I bet I could find it at a health food store or maybe Whole Foods. I'll be looking for it.

Mary said...

Thank you all so much for these tips, both in the blog post and comments. I love cooking and have almost enjoyed finding ways to keep my mom's appetite hearty with a low sodium challenge.

My eyes are dizzy from reading labels. When we eat at a restaurant, we try to choose lowish sodium stuff and then I just keep her sodium way low at breakfast and dinner.

All this info is a real help!

shambo said...

Mary, thank you for your kind comments. Good luck with your mom's low sodium diet. I know it's a challenge, and you're so right about reading labels. It takes so much extra time, but it's so educational. Sometimes you discover that products you assumed were fine turn out to be full of sodium.