Friday, March 13, 2009

Low Sodium Supermarket Dining: Introduction

Cooking & eating low sodium can be a real challenge. There is a plethora of wonderful low sodium products available, but unfortunately, many local grocery stores only carry a few. Cooking almost completely from scratch is the best solution. It’s the only sure fire way of controlling the sodium content of the foods you eat. I’m a “from scratch” cook, but I also know that sometimes even cooking from scratch can be difficult. For one thing, it’s very time consuming. Some days you just may not have the time or energy necessary. Perhaps you’re under the weather or physically unable to do “real” cooking. Maybe your culinary skills are somewhat lacking. So, what are you supposed to do? Revert back to a high sodium diet? Start depending on fast food or restaurant meals? Of course not! There are ways to create a truly low sodium diet using regular grocery store products (including convenience & processed foods) with a minimum of online shopping and limited “from scratch” cooking.

My goal in this series of posts is to “visit” the different aisles of a typical grocery store and discuss how many of the easily available items can be used and modified to fit a low sodium diet. I will try to include some brand names just so you know exactly what kinds of food items I’m referring to. Of course, there are many, many grocery store products that absolutely cannot be used when on a low sodium diet no matter how inventive you are, so don’t expect to see everything. And, one last note: I realize that my local grocery stores may carry items not readily obtainable in other areas, but I’m hoping my ideas will be helpful nonetheless.

Before we begin, there a few important guidelines to follow when using items purchased from your local grocery store:

Read the Labels

The amount of sodium in any given product can vary tremendously from brand to brand. Just because one brand of tomato sauce is prohibitively high in sodium doesn’t mean another brand will be as bad. And conversely, just because one brand of fresh mozzarella is exceptionally low in sodium doesn’t mean other brands will be similar. When figuring out the sodium content, make sure the items you’re comparing have a similar serving size. And don’t let the manufacturers frustrate your efforts. Often you’ll find that one manufacturer will measure serving sizes in metric and another will measure in English (or Imperial), making it difficult to compare. A convenient conversion guide would be helpful. The Nourish Interactive website has a printable guide you can print out and carry with you. (Follow the directions to download a printable PDF file) Also make sure that the serving size is realistic. A low sodium count for a serving size consisting of two mini pretzels is hardly practical. The reality is that you’d actually consume 3-4 hypothetical serving sizes of that supposedly low sodium product. Finally, Do NOT let the nutritional percentages fool you. They are based on a 2,400 mg per day diet. Most people on a low sodium diet must stay within a range of 1,500 mgs. to 2,000 mgs. per day (or less). So the posted percentages are deceptive.

Learn Portion Control

Watch the portion sizes carefully. Just because a product is moderately low in sodium does not mean that you can eat unlimited supplies of it. Keep the cumulative effect of your sodium intake always in mind. And if you’re going to use a relatively salty product, then be sure to use the smallest amount you can get away with. The less you use, the less sodium you will consume. Carrying a calculator with you when you’re shopping is also helpful.

Learn to Compensate, Offset, & Mitigate

It goes without saying that most grocery store convenience foods are going to be high in salt. But you can learn strategies to offset the onslaught of sodium found in most supermarket prepared foods.

For example, let’s say you’ve studied all the jarred spaghetti sauces available at your local grocer and have decided that Classico Roasted Garlic is the lowest in sodium. When you fix a spaghetti dinner, you can offset some of the jarred sauce’s sodium by always adding a can of no-salt tomato sauce (most supermarkets have at least a few no-salt-added tomato products available). You can also stretch the sauce and lessen the sodium content somewhat by adding ¼ - ⅓ pound of unsalted browned ground beef. Throw in a package of pre-sliced fresh mushrooms from the produce section, and you’ve effectively mitigated quite a bit of the sodium content of the jarred sauce. If you’re up for some “from scratch” type prepping, toss in some chopped onion and celery, even grated carrot or zuchinni, while the ground beef is browning.

After cooking the spaghetti in unsalted water, drain it and toss it with a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a few ladles of the sauce over a very low heat. Let the sauce soak into the pasta a bit to flavor it. Then serve the spaghetti with just a spoonful of the reserved sauce. Top with just a dusting of Parmesan or follow my recipe for Pasta Sprinkle. The resulting spaghetti & meat sauce entrée may not be as low in sodium as homemade sauce with all no-salt-added tomato products, but it’ll be a whole lot better than if you used the store bought sauce straight from the jar.

Be Wary of Reduced Fat Products

Watch out for “lite” or lower fat products. When fat is removed, taste & texture suffer. Manufacturers make up for that missing “oomph” by adding salt. 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.

Remember ABC: Always Be Checking

Supermarkets try out new products all the time, and manufacturers revamp their products all the time too. Never assume that because there is no low sodium canned tuna available one month, that it won’t be available the next month. Keep checking those aisles. Conversely, don’t assume that a favorite low sodium product will always be available. Your market may decide to drop carrying it. Sometimes the additions or changes are great, sodium wise. Sometimes they're a bust. But you need to keep on top of it.

Keep Track of Products

When you follow a low sodium diet you should become very familiar with the items carried by your local grocery stores. That's because you spend so much time examining the labels of everything stocked on the shelves. The problem is that not all grocery stores carry the same items. So you've got to come up with a system that keeps track of which store carries which items. And you've got to note the sodium content in case you need to make comparisons. The system you use is not as important as just getting the information all together in one place so you can refer to it as needed.

My method includes the following information: the product description; the brand name; the serving size amount; the sodium content per serving size; where to purchase the product; and any special bits of information that would be helpful.

Keeping track of low sodium products is especially helpful when you run low on something and need to get some more. If you can't exactly remember where you purchased it, the list will help you out. My list is very personalized. I only note the low sodium products that I have found tasty & useful. Keeping track of favorite products helps make the challenge of low sodium cooking just a little bit easier.

So with these guidelines in mind, let’s start shopping. We’ll wander together through a typical supermarket and see what we can find. Surely there are ordinary, every day products we
can use while following a low sodium diet.

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