Consumers on a gluten-free diet can enjoy foods including pasta, bread, crackers and cookies thanks to the spreading availability of gluten-free products. However, some of these gluten-free products contain an unhealthy amount of sodium.
Americans overall consume too much salt, with much of it coming from packaged products and restaurant meals, according to leading health organizations.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that Americans get 75 percent of their dietary sodium from packaged and restaurant foods. Sodium in these foods is especially sneaky because they may not necessarily taste salty, according to the FDA. Packaged and processed gluten-free foods are particular offenders because manufacturers often add salt, along with fat and sugar, to compensate for gluten and add flavor.
How much salt?
While gluten-free consumers are accustomed to scrutinizing food labels for forbidden wheat, rye and barley, they often overlook sodium. Food companies’ increased use of gluten-free labels, as well as stricter FDA rules on labeling foods as gluten free, may give a false sense of security to those striving to eat healthy.
And in an effort to locate the important gluten-free label, consumers may not read the nutrition facts information, which includes the amount of sodium in a serving.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Heart Association (AHA), advise that following the recommended daily sodium limits is critical to health. Consuming too much sodium can lead to increased blood pressure and greater risk for heart disease and stroke.
Yet recent data from the CDC found that most Americans, eating gluten free or not, are exceeding the sodium recommendations. The CDC recommends that healthy individuals age 2 and up consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. Some people, including adults age 51 or older, African Americans, and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, should further limit their salt intake to 1,500 mg per day.
WHO recommendations are more stringent, advising adults to consume less than 2,000 mg of sodium per day. The AHA goes further, advocating that everyone limit their sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day, which is about the equivalent of two-thirds of a teaspoon of table salt.
Food labels contain the information consumers need to keep track of the amount of sodium in packaged products. In fact the AHA and Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) note that checking labels for sodium is essential when buying gluten-free packaged foods in particular. It’s a good habit to get into along with reviewing labels for gluten content.
Don’t blame the salt shaker
The CDC says that Americans consume more than twice the recommended level of sodium daily. Yet, only 5 percent of the sodium in Americans’ diets comes from salt they shake onto their food at home during food preparation or at the table, according to the CDC.
Ten types of food contribute 40 percent of the sodium Americans consume daily, including packaged bread, cold cuts, and pizza, the CDC says. Consumers can cut the most salt from their diets by reducing their consumption of these foods.
However, they can also reduce their sodium consumption by replacing high-sodium recipe ingredients with lower-sodium versions and whole-food ingredients that are naturally low in sodium.
The trick is finding ways to eliminate salt but add flavor. The good news is this doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of bland eating. A variety of ingredients, including citrus zest, juice and herbs, add flavor to foods. A recent study by chefs from Johnson & Wales University, commissioned by Sunkist Growers, found that using lemons can reduce salt by as much as 75 percent in a variety of dishes.
For the study, chefs re-created recipes using salt in decreasing amounts but adding lemon juice and zest to find an ideal flavor combination that would enable the reduction of salt without affecting the flavor. The chefs found an optimal blend that reduced the salt in these recipes: ¼ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon lemon zest and 2½ teaspoons lemon juice.
This citrus swap, or so-called S’alternative, is easy to make, and you can use it in a variety of recipes. For example, store-bought salad dressings often have high sodium content, but you can make a vinaigrette by simply whisking together equal parts olive oil and lemon juice with a bit of minced garlic and Dijon mustard. For those who want to limit their use of oil, simply squeezing a lemon over a tossed salad brings out the freshness of the greens and adds a pop of flavor.
Try brushing poultry with canola or olive oil, lemon juice and crushed oregano leaves and then sprinkle with a bit of paprika for a robust flavor. To flavor side dishes, sprinkle in chopped green onions or chives and squeeze a lemon wedge over corn, carrots, summer squash or broccoli. The optimal blend also enables you to reduce the salt in tried-and-true recipes, such as chicken tortilla soup, dips and fish dishes.
One of the tricks to using the blend is adding the lemon juice toward the end of cooking. This step creates a pleasant hit of acidity that balances the taste, protects the texture of meats and, maintains the color of vegetables. Add lemon zest before or during cooking for mellow lemony undertones in the dish.
Overall, “clean eating” on the gluten-free diet helps keep sodium levels in check. Clean eating focuses on using more healthy whole foods and fewer processed foods. This approach, combined with careful reading of food labels, awareness of the sodium content of food in restaurants and at home, and use of salt alternatives to flavor foods, will make it easy to cut down the amount of sodium in your gluten-free diet.
Quick tips for cutting sodium
- Read labels and keep track of the amount of sodium you consume daily.
- Do your own calculations. Daily sodium intake should not exceed 1,500 mg, or about ²⁄3 teaspoon salt, according to the American Heart Association. For a few days keep a food journal with a tally of how much salt you eat; then, calculate your average daily sodium intake.
- If you surpass recommended levels, make small changes in your shopping and eating habits, which can add up to big results and help you stay within optimal limits.
- Remember that salt isn’t the only way to add flavor to meals. Instead, use zesty citrus and fragrant herbs. Sunkist’s S’alternative website (sunkistsalternative.com) has recipes and teaspoon-for-teaspoon instructions on substituting a combination of lemon zest and lemon juice for salt in a variety of foods.
- Strive to eat foods that are naturally gluten free.
Top Sources of Sodium
- Breads and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Pasta dishes*
- Meat dishes
*The category for pasta dishes does not include macaroni and cheese, which is a separate category.
Source: The Centers for Disease Control cdc.gov/salt/sources.htm
Michelle Dudash, michelledudash.com, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, Cordon Bleu-certified chef and best-selling author of Clean Eating for Busy Families.