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The Shakedown: A low-sodium showdown

Living on 1,500 milligrams a day, but dying for more, reporter puts new dietary guidelines to the test.

Tim Carman

The day before I started my low-sodium diet, I bought a bagel loaded with salt, and later split a strip steak at a restaurant. My total sodium intake was a complete mystery.

So I did some sleuthing: The restaurant owner guessed his 16-ounce strip includes about 500 milligrams of sodium from the salt his cooks sprinkle on top and an additional 250 in the accompanying brandy mushroom cream sauce. But those numbers don't include the sodium naturally occurring in the muscle. Omaha Steaks, for example, says its 8-ounce strip alone contains 115 milligrams of sodium.

The bagel proved even trickier to calculate. The best I could do was hazard a guess based on one offered at a local bagel shop that boasts a whopping 620 milligrams of sodium.

Between the bagel and half of that strip steak, my sodium intake was about 1,000 milligrams. And that doesn't include the morning coffee, the cubicle snacks, the cafeteria sandwich, the wine and countless other salt-delivery systems I indulged in during this single day.

Managing sodium intake requires the sort of endless vigilance that few of us have the stomach for. The average American age 2 and older gobbles down more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. The government would like millions of us to shave almost 2,000 milligrams off that number. The new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for nearly half of U.S. residents, those at risk for hypertension and other health problems, to drop their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams, maximum, a day. That's about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt.

Is that even doable in the sodium-rich playground called America? Is it palatable?

"Salted" author Mark Bitterman questions whether it's even necessary in the first place. In his 2010 book, Bitterman quotes a handful of scientists and researchers who say salt has been unnecessarily singled out. "Most research papers that are cited in support of salt reduction do not actually show a measurable improvement in health outcomes as a result of lowering salt intake," he writes. He points out that consumers could cut their sodium intake in half if they eliminated processed foods and meals at restaurants.

To test the feasibility of the government recommendations, I gave the 1,500-milligram diet a test run for a week, sampling foods at home and from grocery stores, restaurants and vending machines. I ran into obstacles everywhere. I also encountered some nice surprises.

Day 1: Trust no one

If advocates of sodium reduction want you to understand anything, it's this: Food processors and chefs don't care if you choke down enough salt to cure a pig right in its tracks. They're out to make a buck. Whether that is true, I don't know, but I will say this: Chefs can be cavalier about salt sensitivities.

Case in point: At one restaurant, the waiter assured me that the chef uses little salt in her cooking. I felt as if I were being played for a sucker. So I explained how precious few milligrams of sodium I had left in my diet that day: about 400, less than a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

At the chef's urging, I settled for a wan bowl of mustard spaetzle with savoy cabbage, without its usual teaspoon of salt. If not for the small, selective bursts of mustard and the cabbage-y sweetness of the savoy, the spaetzle surely would have evaporated from sheer blandness. Only later, while talking to the chef on the phone, did I learn that a single portion of her dish typically contains at least a quarter-teaspoon of salt, not counting the finishing salt or the sodium found in the Dijon mustard.

"Wow," she said after hearing how little sodium I could consume that evening. "That's a very, very small amount."

That disconnect between low-sodium diner and sodium-packing chef had cost me: I had blown my limit on Day 1.

Day 2: Equilibrium of sins

The main pleasure of my trip to the restaurant was the cabernet: Each sip felt like a small, self-congratulatory pat on the back for undertaking this masochistic experiment. I was further rewarded when I learned that cabernet sauvignon contains no sodium.

Granted, I didn't dig too deep to try to disprove that factoid. In depriving myself of salt, I felt poor - in flavor, and also perhaps in spirit. As Mark Kurlansky writes in his book "Salt: A World History" (Penguin Books, 2002), the now-ubiquitous seasoning was once a prized commodity over which countless wars were waged to control its production and distribution, and has even been a currency.

I drank more wine during this week of deprivation than I have in years. After Day 2's lackluster meals, I poured a glass of cabernet to pair with a bowl of imported tagliatelle (a surprisingly zero-sodium product that I boiled in, ugh, saltless water) topped with a miserly half-cup of Toigo Orchards' heirloom tomato sauce. The pasta was poverty eating, with no room for even a scrap of meat. The wine was compensation, as if to remind myself I'm still worthy of life's riches.

Day 3: Flavor substitute

Ask any 10 chefs how to boost flavor when salt is scarce, and each will name one or all of the following: spices, citrus juices, fresh herbs, reduced unsalted stocks or rubs. Those ingredients are already used to add depth and complexity, but the presumption is that, with less salt, they will shoulder a larger burden in any particular dish.

At one restaurant I had an appetizer of yellowfin tuna carpaccio with segments of blood orange, crunchy spears of fennel, strips of pickled lemon zest and artfully sprinkled fronds of dill - without the salt usually sprinkled on top. When I rolled up a length of the thinly sliced tuna, concealing the toppings like a burrito, I was impressed with the bursts of acid and sweetness that punctuated the fresh, clean fattiness of the fish.

And I had one unshakable thought: This would taste a lot better with salt.

Day: 4: Home cooking

The solution to the Himalayan mountain of salt we face in restaurants and grocery stores is to cook at home. Success, of course, is contingent on at least two factors: One, that you follow a low-sodium recipe; two, that you treat your salt shaker as if it were a bear in the woods and leave it undisturbed. That is not my way.

But I dutifully followed a recipe for Indian Wok-Seared Chicken and Vegetables in "EatingWell: 500 Calorie Dinners," by Jessie Price, Nicci Micco and the EatingWell Test Kitchen (Countryman Press, 2010). Scaled down to serve two, the dish would include less than a half-teaspoon of salt. I usually spill more than that on the floor.

But the recipe's genius is its technique of rolling the cut chicken in a cornstarch-and-spice blend, so that those precious few crystals are evenly distributed on the surface of the meat. The dish, I must confess, was delicious.

Day 5: The standoff

Nutritional ignorance is all too common. Many chefs have no clue, nor do employees at places where they should know. I walked out of a Potbelly Sandwich Shop when a manager informed me that nutritional information could be found only online. Chop't Creative Salad Co. had to fetch a manual to show me the figures, an awkward review in the middle of a crowded shop. And don't even bother with most vendors at the farmers market. You might as well ask them to map the human genome.

Day 6: The experiment

Whatever you think of sugar substitutes, they at least provide a sweetness that mimics the original ingredient. Salt substitutes and salt-free seasonings are different beasts altogether.

I tried a small, highly biased experiment with three cheap strip steaks and one seasoning for each: NoSalt, Mrs. Dash Table Blend and Trapani sea salt. I seared the steaks in a pan, popped them in the oven to finish and sampled the results. The NoSalt steak tasted like bitter metal; the Mrs. Dash tasted like stale herbs. And the Trapani? Well, it turned even that overcooked piece of low-grade meat into something savory and semi-satisfying.

Steak and salt. There is no substitute.

Day 7: Sodium showdown

All food manufacturers are not alike. That fact is routinely noted by nutritionists who point to the wide variation in sodium among, say, tomato sauces. Newman's Own Cabernet Marinara has 590 milligrams of sodium per serving; Classico's Cabernet Marinara cuts that nearly in half at 330 milligrams.

There can be even wider variation in the freezer case, where the sodium content ranges from the salt lick of P.F. Chang's Home Menu Ginger Chicken and Broccoli (1,030 milligrams) to the merely salty Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers General Tso's Spicy Chicken (500 milligrams). The healthful choice is obvious, and not just by name, but the flavorful choice is equally clear: The General Tso's tastes as though some scientist decided consumers would be happy to sacrifice salt for sugar. The Ginger Chicken and Broccoli tastes like decent Chinese takeout.

If I had to choose between the two for dinner, I'd pick the P.F. Chang's meal every time. Of course, you might say that's just the salt talking.

Many say it takes six weeks for your palate to adjust to lower sodium levels. I must admit that even after a week's worth of reduction, I developed a serious appreciation for the small pockets of salt I did encounter, as if my palate were hard-wired to seek out the mineral's many pleasures to ensure my survival (which is sort of the case).

But I was also acutely aware that I was eating less overall, just to stay under the 1,500-milligram limit. I felt hungry many days. In retrospect, I realize I could have filled that void with low-sodium fruits and vegetables, which is exactly what the government wants me to do anyway.

Additional reported material from staff writer Addie Broyles.

All of these dishes contain less than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Tangy Caper Asian Pear Shrimp Salad

8 or 9 peeled and deveined raw shrimp

1 Tbsp. olive oil, preferably cold-pressed

1 Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard

Freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lime

4 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. sugar

2 Tbsp. unseasoned rice wine vinegar

1 Tbsp. drained and rinsed capers, crushed

1 cup watercress leaves, chopped

2 cups shredded Napa cabbage

1 large Asian pear, cored, cut in half and then cut into thin slices

Set a pan with a few inches of water over medium heat. Place a steamer basket on top. Once the water starts to develop steam, place the shrimp in the steamer basket and steam for 3 minutes until just opaque. Let cool while you make the dressing. Whisk together the oil, mustard, lime juice, garlic, sugar, vinegar and capers in a large glass bowl.

Cut the steamed shrimp in half horizontally, if desired. Add the chopped watercress, cabbage, pear slices and shrimp. Toss well and divide between individual plates. Serve immediately. Serves 2.

- Adapted from `Cooking on the Light Side,' by Thienna Ho (Thienna Inc., 2010)

Pork Tenderloin With Roasted Grape Sauce

2 cups red and/or green seedless grapes

12 oz. pork tenderloin, trimmed of fat and silver skin

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup finely chopped shallots, about 2 medium shallots

1/2 cup cabernet sauvignon

1/2 cup no-salt-added chicken broth

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp. dried thyme

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

2 tsp. water

3/4 tsp. cornstarch

Position racks in the middle and lower third of the oven; preheat to 425 degrees. Place the grapes on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast on the lower rack, shaking the pan occasionally to turn the grapes, until shriveled, 25 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, rub the pork with the salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork and brown on one side, about 2 minutes. Turn the pork over and transfer the pan to the top oven rack. Roast the pork for 12 to 14 minutes, until it is just barely pink in the center and an instant-read thermometer registers 145 degrees. Transfer the pork to a clean cutting board to rest before cutting crosswise into slices.

Place the skillet over medium heat (be careful: the handle will still be very hot); add the shallots and cook, stirring, until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook for 2 to 4 minutes or until it has reduced by half. Stir in the broth, thyme and mustard, cooking so the mixture is barely bubbling. Combine the water and cornstarch in a small bowl, then stir the mixture into the skillet mixture. Cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute to form a slightly thickened sauce. Stir in the roasted grapes. Serve slices of pork with the grape sauce. Serves 2.

- Adapted from `Eating Well: 500 Calorie Dinners' by Jessie Price, Nicci Micco and the editors of EatingWell (Countryman Press, 2010)

Date-Nut Oatmeal Bars

1/2 cup pitted dates, chopped

1/2 cup raw unsalted Brazil nuts

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

2 Tbsp. flour or Hi-maize 260 brand resistant starch (this high fiber product is available online)

21/4 cups old-fashioned or quick-cooking rolled oats

1/2 cup water

Combine the chopped pitted dates, Brazil nuts, peanut butter, flour or resistant starch and 2 cups of the rolled oats in a food processor. Pulse until the mixture has the consistency of bread crumbs. With the motor running, gradually add the water to form a soft dough. Lay a large piece of aluminum foil on the counter.

Transfer the dough to the foil; shape or roll the dough into a 12-by-2-inch log, using the foil to help roll as needed. Pat the remaining 1/4 cup of rolled oats onto the outside of the log, pressing them into the surface so they stick. Let the log dry for a few hours or overnight. Cut crosswise into 7 equal pieces. You can store these bars at room temperature in an airtight container for up to a week.

- Adapted from `Cooking on the Light Side,' by Thienna Ho (Thienna Inc., 2010)