Nothing is good for you if you don’t eat it – one of my favorite sayings, especially when there are debates about which foods are best for heart health. The basic tenets of a heart smart meal include lots of produce, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains. The big opportunity? Making sure flavor is the reason everyone wants to eat these delicious, nutritious foods that bring heart healthful benefits to the table.
Flavor and taste are big factors in how we determine what we want to eat – we are drawn to foods that are described by their flavors, and often inspired to try new things when they are paired with foods and flavors we are already familiar with. Pairing familiar foods and flavors with something new or different is a great way to explore foods through flavors. Breakfast pizza, fish tacos, and avocado toast are all great examples of culinary and nutrition innovations. Seasoning and spices, as well as our inherent 5 tastes (sweet, salty, umami, bitter, sour) can inform food shopping and cooking routines into wonderful meals that are easy and affordable.
For heart health, salt and sodium are most important seasonings to understand and manage. It is easier than you think – once you have a few tips and hacks, you will be able to nudge flavor up and sodium down for almost any recipe.
There are so many ways to build flavor in food. Sodium is important, but Americans are overexposed. No other cuisine relies as heavily on salt and fat – internationally, spices, herbs, fermentation, and other methods are preferred. Sodium has many roles – it is a flavor enhancer and reduces the perception of bitterness. Sodium also tenderizes and retains moisture and is important to food safety and preservation. Slowly, food companies are lowering sodium levels in foods. On food labels, low sodium in a single item is 140 mg or less; in a meal or soup item, per the American Heart Association, aim for 600 mg per serving or less. Public health goals range from 1500 mg to 2300 mg over the entire day. Perspective: most Americans get over 3400 mg sodium in a day; a teaspoon of salt equals 2300 mg of sodium.
Important Label Terms – from The American Heart Association https://bit.ly/3WlioDH
- Salt/Sodium-Free – Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
- Very Low Sodium – 35 milligrams or less per serving
- Low Sodium – 140 milligrams or less per serving
- Reduced Sodium – At least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the usual sodium level
- Light in Sodium or Lightly Salted– At least 50 percent less sodium than the regular product
No-Salt-Added or Unsalted – No salt is added during processing – but these products may not be salt/sodium-free unless stated.
Remember: Sodium levels vary in the same foods depending on the brand or restaurant.
Learn About Salt and Sodium
There are differences between salt and sodium, and a few myths about specific types of salt. Table salt is a combination of sodium and chloride, and the quantity of each may be higher or lower depending on the formulation.
Sea salt, Himalayan (pink) salt and other finishing salts all contain about 2300 mg per teaspoon. The different colors come from trace minerals (like copper in pink salt), but those minerals are not in any quantity that benefit health.
Some kosher salts, such as Diamond Crystal brand, are lower in sodium – the “fluffy” crystal shape allows the sodium flavor to remain high even though the actual content is lower, at 1120 mg per teaspoon.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is also returning to the plate as science is getting ahead of the myth that it is not a good choice. MSG meets 2 flavor-forward needs – it lowers sodium content (by up to 40%) and enhances savory flavors with its glutamate component. Glutamate is naturally found in protein foods like cheese, meat, and vegetables like mushrooms, and is made by the human body for critical brain and metabolic functions.
Salt Substitutes – These are used when sodium management is critical to health conditions. Please check with your health care providers before using, as they contain potassium, which may be restricted.
Cooking methods such as grilling, sautéing, or roasting have their own impact on flavors, through caramelization. Those methods also help manage fat type/content if a rack is used while roasting meat or seafood.
Citrus flavors can substitute for sodium in many foods. Citrus makes our mouth water and brightens flavors when added just before eating. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime, or some orange zest instead of salt to freshen savory foods and leftovers. Fresh is great, but you can also try 100% juice items like orange juice (Dairy case), lemon or lime juice (found in our Produce section).
In the international aisle, lower sodium sauces, jarred and pickled vegetables and jarred (no added sugar) fruit spreads can also be used to create big flavor in small quantities. The secret is to use them near the end of cooking. A teaspoon of chopped roasted red pepper on a grilled protein, vegetable or fruit is a quick, colorful, and savory add that takes just a minute to prep. How about a cherry + thyme combo on a roast pork tenderloin, orange + chopped green olive on white fish, or bright apricot + cayenne on chicken? Jarred sofrito, usually in the international section, is a cooking sauce popular in many cuisines, and brings tomato, onion, peppers, and garlic together as a savory base – check labels for low sodium versions.
Savory/Umami flavors can be enhanced using low sodium concentrated tomato paste, a sprinkle of good parmigiana or Romano cheese, ground dried mushrooms (there are new spice products that include mushrooms, check sodium content/serving size and adjust as needed) and nutritional yeast, which has a parmigiana-like flavor, but a low sodium content for the 2 Tbsp serving size. Experiment with timing – like fresh herbs, these flavors are more robust when added near the end of preparation/cooking.
Sun dried tomatoes – jarred and bagged, in the international aisle and the Produce department. Check sodium, often they are very low.
Fresh and jarred salsas – in the Produce dept. and Dairy case (cheese section)
Flavored teas – experiment with poaching seafood, chicken, pork, and fruit (e.g., poached pears).
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices come in many forms, and their flavors take us around the world. Products that make it easy to boost flavor abound – here are a few options in our stores to try:
Fresh Herbs – Organic fresh herbs are the go-to at Price Chopper and Market 32. Find individual herbs and some blends already assembled for your culinary needs in the Produce section of the store.
The Gourmet Garden – squeeze garlic, spices, herbs, and blends are in the Produce department – find them by the fresh greens. Add them to recipes, or use them to finish dishes, like adding Italian herbs to a cooked chicken breast, or a rice dish before serving. Use the garlic as a base rub on roasted meat or vegetables – you can add other spices (like dried herbs) and they will adhere nicely to the dish while it cooks.
Salt-free dried herb blends are quick and easy – brand names include PICS, Mrs. Dash, and McCormick Salt-free Perfect Pinch, Weber Salt-Free Hamburger, Chicken and Steak seasoning.
Tip – Look for small plastic packages of new flavors – easy to buy and try for just $1 or $2.
Tip – Dried herbs should be replaced after 1 year – they do not “go bad”, but they lose flavor and quality over time. Purchasing smaller quantities more often ensures the best flavor profile.
Fresh ginger, garlic, turmeric, scallions, cilantro, and a variety of organic, fresh packaged herbs including rosemary, chives, and basil are easy to find in many food stores.
Tip – Fresh herbs lend their flavors best to dishes when they are added at the end of cooking, for 10 minutes or less. If recipes call for herbs to be added before cooking, dried are the better and more economic choice.
Tip – Freeze leftover roots as is, chop herbs and freeze in ice cube trays. No salt added tomato paste leftovers can be placed into a plastic bag, (shape into a cylinder), frozen, then sliced and used to enhance flavors of soups and sauces.
Kitchen Tools and Gadgets
When creating richer flavors is easy, it happens more often. The right kitchen tools can help you take your taste buds to new heights with little effort. Check out the list below and find many in the kitchenware section of the store!
Coffee grinder, good knives, knife sharpener, garlic press, small manual spring chopper, 4-sided grater, digital kitchen scale, measuring cups (liquid and dry ingredient)/spoons, microplane/zester, citrus press, multi-blade manual chopper, mortar and pestle, herb grinder, apple/pear/mango slicers, veggie storage containers (e.g. avocado or onion keepers), cruet or small jars with covers for salad dressings, veggie chopper or mandolin, spiralizer, food processor, bullet-blender. Snap top plastic/glass tempered glass containers – different sizes, freezer to oven. Instant pot, rice cooker, large and small roasting pans, sheet pans (great for roasting vegetables), colander, salad spinner, microwave/stove stop steamers.
Shopping and Recipe resources – look for Know Your Colors tags/nutrition label info/options
https://www.pricechopper.com/know-your-colors/ – available on store shelf tags and our https://shop.pricechopper.com/shop E-commerce shopping pages, make shopping better easier when you have the right products already on your list!
American Heart Association website – https://recipes.heart.org/
Price Chopper/Market 32 website – Healthy Eating/Vegetarian/Low Sodium www.pricechopper.com
Eatright.org – Academy of Nutrition recipes and nutrition resources
Allrecipes.com – Scalable recipe adjuster, nutrition facts/videos/and a leftovers recipe resource.
Pinterest – Food hacks – so much fun to check out! BUT – beware nutrition info there unless the author is a Registered Dietitian.