The Truth About Salt In Your Food

It's everywhere. And we're supposed to eat less of it. By: Sidney Fry, MS, RD

The Salt Puzzle

Photo: Randy Mayor

The Salt Puzzle

You can't live without salt: It's essential for human metabolism. And you don't want to: It makes a lot of good food taste better and plays important roles in cooking. But you're being told to cut back, especially if you're one of the 155 million at-risk Americans who are advised to consume just 1,500mg per day to lower the risk of high blood pressure. (The rest of us are allowed 2,300mg, which is about a teaspoon). Banishing salt isn't realistic or even desirable. Lowering salt, though, becomes easier when you know where it lies (naturally, and in processed foods) and how much you're adding in the kitchen. To that end, we decided to try some kitchen and shopping experiments, sending food samples to a lab. How much sodium does your marinade really add?

Does a longer brine add much salt?

Photo: Randy Mayor

Does a longer brine add much salt?

Naturally lean meats, like turkey and pork, benefit from a brine. We wondered if sodium goes up with time, and if so, how much.

THE TEST: We soaked three 12-pound turkeys in a brining solution that contained ½ cup of kosher salt (that's about 46,000mg sodium!) for 12, 18, and 24 hours. For comparison, we also analyzed an unbrined bird.

THE RESULTS: (per 4 ounces roasted turkey) No brine: white meat, 55mg; dark meat, 90mg; 12-hour brine: white meat, 151mg; dark meat, 235mg; 18-hour brine: white meat, 186mg; dark meat, 254mg; 24-hour brine: white meat, 223mg; dark meat, 260mg

The largest sodium increase happens in the first 12 hours. It then tapers off, but the tenderizing continues. Only about 1% of the total sodium from the brine is absorbed. Bottom line: If you like a longer brine (we prefer 24 hours), the added sodium isn't that significant. Brine for texture reasons, and put away sodium fears.

Kosher turkeys may have 200mg per 4 ounces due to the processing method. Frozen turkeys may have been washed in salt water to speed the freezing, adding 200 to 350mg per 4 ounces. And some birds are enhanced with up to 15% broth, which adds 330 to 440mg per 4 ounces. Check your labels.

 

 

How much sodium does meat absorb from a salty marinade?

Photo: Randy Mayor

How much sodium does meat absorb from a salty marinade?

As you see with brining, sodium helps break down proteins. The acidic ingredients in a marinade do the same for connective tissues, all the while imparting flavor to the surface of the meat.

THE TEST: We marinated a pork tenderloin in a simple marinade of lower-sodium soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions, garlic, black pepper, and ginger for 1.5 hours, then grilled the tenderloin.

Unmarinated grilled pork: 54mg sodium per 3 ounces

Marinated grilled pork: 276mg sodium per 3 ounces

THE RESULTS: Only 6% of the salt was absorbed by the pork, but it quadrupled the sodium count in the meat. Bottom line: Let sodium do its work; then cut back salt in any sauces or other ingredients.

The saltier the water, the saltier the pasta.

Photo: Randy Mayor

The saltier the water, the saltier the pasta.

Many chefs implore home cooks to heavily salt pasta cooking water ("make it as salty as the ocean," says one popular TV chef). Yes, salt does enhance the pasta's flavor. But so do the sauce and other ingredients, which may be salted, too. As our tests show, sodium-wary cooks need to moderate the hand that salts the water.

THE TEST: We boiled a pound each of dry spaghetti (sodium-free) in 4 quarts of water containing varying amounts of salt.

THE RESULTS: (per 6 ounces cooked pasta); 1 teaspoon salt (2,360mg sodium): 75mg sodium; 1 tablespoon salt (7,080mg sodium): 253mg sodium; 2 tablespoons salt (14,160mg sodium): 446mg sodium; ¼ cup salt (28,319mg sodium): 896mg sodium

Bottom line: It's not that pasta soaks up salt like a sponge: Only 3% was absorbed into each serving of pasta. But 3% of the sodium in ¼ cup is 896mg—nearly 40% of your 2,300mg daily limit. So reduce (don't eliminate) the salt in the water; save it for the sauce.

How big is your "pinch" of salt?

How big is your "pinch" of salt? 

We asked a dozen staffers—editors and Test Kitchen folks—to give us a pinch of salt. Weights ranged from 0.06 to 1.32g, averaging 0.48g. Half a gram contains about 180mg sodium. A pinch that size per day for a year equals 65,700mg sodium!

Bottom line: Know your pinch—or measure.

Can you rinse the salt off canned beans?

Can you rinse the salt off canned beans?

Salt is used by food manufacturers to enhance flavor—we've seen more than 500mg in just ½ cup of beans. That's why we call for canned beans to be rinsed and drained before preparing.

THE TEST: We rinsed, drained, and then tested two varieties of beans and compared them with their unwashed counterparts.

THE RESULTS: Black Beans: Sodium in ½ cup: 424mg; Sodium in ½ cup, rinsed and drained: 232mg; Red Kidney Beans: Sodium in ½ cup: 260mg; Sodium in ½ cup, rinsed and drained: 148mg

Bottom line: The beans lose more than 40% of their sodium when rinsed and drained.

Why some shrimp are saltier than others.

Photo: Bernhard Winkellmann/Stockfood

Why some shrimp are saltier than others.

When fresh shrimp are frozen (often just minutes after being caught), they are washed in a saline solution to help bring their temperature down faster. Quicker chilling prevents ice crystals from forming inside the shrimp, resulting in better texture when defrosted; it also helps keep them from clumping together as they freeze. "Easy-peel" shrimp are soaked in an additional sodium solution. Pro: They slip out of their shells effortlessly. Con: More salt. How much more?

THE TEST: We steamed and peeled five varieties of shrimp, then shipped them to the lab for sodium analysis.

THE RESULTS: (per 4 ounces steamed):
Wild-caught fresh Gulf shrimp (never frozen): 97mg;
Farm-raised fresh shrimp (previously frozen): 159mg;
Winn-Dixie individually quick-frozen easy-to-peel wild-caught shrimp: 245mg;
Whole Foods individually quick-frozen easy-to-peel shrimp: 483mg;
Publix fresh frozen easy-to-peel farm-raised shrimp: 730mg

 

 

 

Why some salt labels don't tell the whole story.

Photo: Randy Mayor

Why some salt labels don't tell the whole story.

Food labels generally tell you what's in the package, not what will be in the food after cooking. Here's a dramatic example of what that can mean for the home cook.

Soba noodle labels list as much as 900mg sodium per serving—which has limited our use of it. But when we boiled five brands of soba, they lost an average of 80% of their sodium, down to about 80mg per serving. The FDA only requires labels to list the nutritional properties of foods as packaged. Food makers may voluntarily present "as prepared" information, but that's an extra step, and calculation, for them. Most foods used in cooking are rarely consumed as packaged—like soba noodles.

Bottom line: Always consider the ingredients added and methods used in preparing foods.

Coarser salt doesn't yield automatic sodium savings.

Photo: Randy Mayor

Coarser salt doesn't yield automatic sodium savings.

It's conventional wisdom that big-grained salt contains about 25% less sodium by volume than table salt. The idea: Coarse crystals don't pack tightly and take up more space in a measuring spoon (with lots of air between them), meaning you consume less sodium. Labels on one brand show a 110mg difference between ¼ teaspoon of their table and kosher salts; that's a 19% savings if you use kosher. But our analysis of six salts showed less variation per ¼ teaspoon than you might think.

Bottom line: If you're watching sodium, you can't throw "gourmet" salts around with impunity.

Our fave sauce: a cautionary tale

Photo: Randy Mayor

Our fave sauce: a cautionary tale

We've long recommended McCutcheon's bottled marinara sauce because of its great flavor and the low sodium level on its label—only 185mg per half-cup listed. When we tested three batches, though, they came in at more than three times that number. We talked to Vanessa McCutcheon-Smith, and she attributed the difference to a change in the supplier of the canned tomatoes they use as a base (no salt is added during the cooking). It's not routine to test a batch when the tomatoes change, she explained—only to calculate nutrition based on numbers provided by suppliers.

"Knowing what I know about how things change on the supply chain, I don't put a lot of merit in the information on food panels," she added.

Nutrition label numbers are allowed 20% of wiggle room, but the FDA does few random audits. As a general rule: Trust your taste buds; if something tastes salty, it probably is, whatever the label says.

Michael's of Brooklyn and Dell' Amore are tasty and pretty low in sodium—on their labels and in our lab tests.

How salty are popular takeout foods?

Photo: Take a Pix Media/Veer

How salty are popular takeout foods?

Fast-food chains post data on their websites: Hardee's Monster Thick-burger contains almost 3,000mg sodium. But most small, local restaurants don't post nutrition information.

We got takeout from three in our town to see how entrées stacked up. They stacked up really, really high.

Trattoria pizza topped with cured meats, sausage, and olives: 3,474mg sodium

Barbecue pulled-pork sandwich with baked beans and slaw: 2,480mg sodium

Bowl of ramen with miso broth: 3,245mg sodium

—Kimberly Holland

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