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Helping the Food Industry Shake Its Salt Habit

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Salt. It sits on nearly every table in this country. It's used in multiple clichés (see title). It's so prevalent that a history of salt became a best-seller some years back.

Humans need it to live, but at the levels that Americans currently consume it, sodium could be the single most dangerous substance in the food supply, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Reducing sodium consumption by half, CSPI says, would save an estimated 150,000 lives and $20 billion in medical costs per year (PDF).

A single teaspoon of table salt has 2,300 milligrams. The average American gets more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day -- way more than they should. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to 2,300 milligrams a day -- or 1,500 milligrams if you're age 51 or older, African-American, or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.

The biggest perpetrator isn't the shaker on the family dinner table. In fact, CSPI  estimates that more than 75 percent of Americans' daily intake comes from processed and restaurant foods.

That may finally be about to change. The Food and Drug Administration just announced that it will soon be issuing voluntary guidelines asking the food industry to lower sodium levels.

The food company I work for has learned a lot on that very topic, thanks to a joint campaign we conducted with CSPI last fall to reduce salt use in the kitchens of our 500-plus cafés and by our hundreds of thousands of guests at corporations, universities, and museums. Since we cook everything from scratch, we thought we were ahead of the game, but we encountered a lot of salt shockers along the way.

Deli 'saltwiches'

We have never allowed our chefs to use processed foods that are responsible for much of the salt in the American diet. For instance, stocks and broths -- both essential to many dishes -- are loaded with salt in their commercial versions, averaging 900 milligrams per cup. We make all of our stock in house without salt, and we've had it analyzed. Our house-made version averages 100 milligrams per cup. We were ahead already!

Then we realized our deli and pizza stations were full of salty items. Did you know that bread is really, really salty? How about cheese? And then there are the admittedly salty -- yet delicious! -- items such as salami, pepperoni, bacon, even sliced turkey! Consider the old standby, a turkey and Swiss sandwich. The bread is salty, the cheese is salty, and the turkey is salty. The whole sandwich can clock in at as high as 1,500 milligrams sodium, we found!

And that's before you add condiments. Many of them are also salty. Tortillas are salty, so we encountered the same problem with turkey and cheese wraps. To get to our goal of a less-salty turkey and Swiss sandwich, we sourced lower-sodium turkey and switched to it. We also added a smaller-portioned option to reduce salt; started offering cheese as an option instead of a given; pushed the lettuce, tomato, onions, and other unsalty condiments; and even introduced open-faced sandwiches, thereby cutting out 50 percent of of the salty components.

Convincing the chefs

Deli menus weren't the only unexpected challenge, though. Another: persuading our chefs to get on board.

Normally, we create initiatives and our chefs get behind them 100 percent. (For example, the Eat Local Challenge we started in 2005.) This time, no one was excited. I mean, everyone loves salt, but chefs love it more than most people. And everyone is very, very used to cooking with salt -- even our creative and health-conscious chefs. For example, nothing tenderizes and brings out the flavor in meat than salt. Now we were asking them to cut it? Did that mean no more marinated flank steak? And let's not even talk about soy sauce. (Okay, I can't resist: low sodium soy sauce costs us almost twice as much as regular! Another shocker.)

But our chefs are nothing if not creative. They've always prided themselves on cooking with the freshest whole foods and deriving flavor from the foods themselves -- no reliance on MSG, no shortcuts. House-made stocks plus fresh herbs and spices are the building blocks of many great dishes. I knew we would get there.

And now we have. As it turns out, the growing tolerance and desire for salt is something our palates have developed and learned over the years, and it can be unlearned. The dishes  they came up with, such as North African brown rice and lentils with a zesty gremolata (recipe below), or pan-seared salmon with citrus salsa, have proven immensely popular -- and they are virtually salt-free.

I'm glad to see the FDA taking action, and I hope the rest of the food industry will embrace these voluntary guidelines when they come. But as we found, if Americans are going to kick the salt habit, we're also going to need both chefs and eaters to re-educate their tastebuds.

RECIPE: North African Brown Rice and Lentils with Gremolata

Sauteed onion and an eclectic blend of spices contribute  plenty of flavor to this simple rice and lentil dish topped with a zesty blend of olives, lemon, and herbs. Serves 4.

For the main dish:
  • 1 cup green or brown lentils (the dry kind; soak them in warm water for 30 minutes before using)
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup white onion, diced
  • 3/4 cup brown rice (dry)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • 1/8 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 4 cups water
For the gremolata:
  • 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 cup mint, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest, chopped or finely grated
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest, chopped or finely grated
  • 3 tablespoons kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a pan on medium high and sauté the onion until soft. Mix in rice. Drain the soaking lentils and stir into rice and onion mixture with dry spices, brown sugar, and pinch of black pepper. Add water, bring to simmer, cover, and cook on a low simmer for 15 minutes.

While lentils are cooking, chop and combine the ingredients for the gremolata. When the lentils are done, turn off the heat and keep covered for another 15 minutes before serving. Serve with a large dollop of gremolata.

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