The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. It is very difficult not to. Most foods you consume that do not taste salty can easily put you over the limit. Still, many authorities believe that 3,400 milligrams is too much and that too much salt increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. The World Health Organization suggests that we consume no more than 2,000 (2,000 for women and 2,300 for men) milligrams of sodium a day. That’s equal to about 1 teaspoon of salt.
There are other authorities who say that reducing sodium intake to that level has no proven health benefit and may actually be harmful.
There are many studies that support both views. The truth is that only a subset of people are genetically salt-sensitive.
Sodium is important for over-all health, but our sodium levels need to be in proportion to our levels of other minerals, mainly potassium. When the ratio of sodium and potassium in our bodies gets out of whack, high blood pressure follows. We need optimal amounts of both to stay healthy.
The best source of potassium is whole, unprocessed, plant-based foods like cooked spinach, broccoli, squash, avocados, papayas, and bananas.
If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure and hypertension, you will be instructed to eliminate sodium from your diet as much as possible. This isn’t always the best advice. In fact, in more than one study it was discovered that patients with heart failure who ate a salt-restricted diet were 85 percent more likely to die or be hospitalized than patients who didn’t limit their salt intake!
There are some people with high blood pressure who are salt-sensitive. But, even then, the research doesn’t show much benefit to restricting salt. The trick is to avoid the refined salts in processed foods and stay as close to 2,000 milligrams a day as possible.
Sodium is naturally found in whole foods, and like with any other food or mineral, it is best in its purest form. Beets, carrots, celery, chard, seaweed and beans naturally have sodium. But, salt is everywhere – in ALL processed frozen dinners, soups, pizzas, and sandwiches. Breads and rolls supply more sodium than any other food category.
Restaurant meals are the highest in salt – often containing two or three times as much sodium as someone would eat in an entire day. A piece of Panera baguette has six times the amount of salt than the chips that come on the side of a bowl of soup. You cannot detect the salt, but it is there!
The processed-food and restaurant industries have fought for decades to continue using as much salt as they want. In 2016, the FDA proposed sodium targets for both packaged and restaurant foods. These were voluntary and covered categories like potato chips, canned soups, and pizzas. At first, the Grocery Manufacturers Association agreed that it could be useful for Americans to lower sodium, but then they came up with innumerable reasons why sodium should not be lowered. Then, the Salt Institute, the association of manufactures like Morton Salt, urged the FDA to abandon curbs on added sodium.
In the last couple of years, several major companies like Unilever, Nestlé, and Mars have declared their support for the FDA’s voluntary targets. The Grocery Manufacturers Association lost several major food companies and morphed into the Consumer Brands Association. The Salt Institute went out of business. It is nearly five years later and the FDA has done nothing finalize the lowered targets.
Interestingly, foods sold at McDonald’s and Burger King and other chain restaurants in other countries use less salt than the same foods sold here. Companies can lower the sodium levels to match what the consumer wants.
Fifteen years ago, the United Kingdom set voluntary sodium targets, pressuring food manufactures to lower sodium and mounted a campaign urging people to eat less salt. After five years, sodium intakes fell by around 10 percent. With a change in government, this progress came to a halt.
Chile, Israel, Uruguay and other countries have been very effective with food labeling. Foods with more than specified levels of sodium have “high in salt” warnings on the front of the package. After a couple of years, Chile lowered its threshold for a sodium, then dropped the threshold even further.
Why does salt taste good to us? According to the experts at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, it boils down to biology. We like the taste because our bodies need sodium chloride.
Salt makes pretty much everything else taste better. Thanks to its chemical nature, salt has the amazing ability to intensify agreeable tastes and diminish disagreeable ones.
The scientists at the Monell Center say that some flavor compounds are too subtle to detect, but when you add even just a small amount of salt, our taste receptors can detect flavors they weren’t able to sense before.
In addition to being a general flavor amplifier, salt has a special ability to enhance sweetness in foods. Taste two chocolate puddings that are the same in every way except that one contains a bit of salt and the other none: The one with salt will taste sweeter. That’s because sodium ions zero in on bitter flavor compounds and suppress them, making the sweet flavors seem stronger. For the same reason, salt makes bitter foods more palatable.
Limiting your salt intake is easier when you follow a couple of suggestions:
- Make your own salad dressing. Pre-made dressing often has high-fructose corn syrup, corn thickeners, and refined oils – even the “healthy” ones. Virgin olive oil (helps to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in your food), balsamic vinegar (red wine or white wine, apple cider vinegar, etc.), a bit of mustard and some fresh or dried herbs – shake it up.
- Explore spices – a mix of oregano, thyme and rosemary might distract your brain from less salt and wake up your tastebuds.
- Buy organic ketchup. it has less sugar and no high-fructose corn syrup.
- Buy mustard with just mustard seed, water, vinegar, and spices – NO soybean oil and additives
- Tamari – Look for brands that are brewed in the traditional way with no sulfites, coloring, sweeteners, or gluten.
- Miso is a healthy fermented food that you can put into soup or salad dressing. Mix a teaspoon into a plant-based yogurt with a teaspoon of tamari for a dip or water down for a salad dressing.
- Avoid table salt and find an unrefined variety you like. Himalayan pink salt and Celtic sea salt are good choices. Start with a pinch, not a shaker.
Tamarind pods come from the tamarind tree, which originated in Africa and now grows in many tropical regions. Tamarind is used in Asian, middle Eastern, Mexican, and South American cuisines. A tamarind tree grows very slowly and up to 100 feet tall. It bears fruits that are around 6 inches in length and look like a large, curved bean pod.
Young tamarind fruit has a pliable brown skin and the inside greenish with whitish seeds.The pulp of the young fruit is green and sour. As it ripens, the juicy pulp becomes paste-like and more sweet-sour. As the fruit matures the greenish insides turn brown and the pod becomes more bulbous. As the fruit dries out, the pod becomes stiff and brittle, the insides become pasty and the seeds turn brown.
Tamarind is a low-glycemic fruit, meaning that it will not cause a blood sugar spike.
The following is nutrition information for 1 cup of raw tamarind pulp:.
- Magnesium: 28% of the RDI.
- Potassium: 22% of the RDI.
- Iron: 19% of the RDI.
- Calcium: 9% of the RDI.
- Phosphorus: 14% of the RDI.
- Vitamin B1 (thiamin): 34% of the RDI.
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): 11% of the RDI.
- Vitamin B3 (niacin): 12% of the RDI.
Trace amounts of vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), folate, vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), copper and selenium.
It also contains 6 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein and 1 gram of fat. This comes with a total of 287 calories, almost all of which are from sugar.
Tamarind contains polyphenols, antioxidants that help control inflammation in the body. Tamarind is rich in several phytochemicals, including beta-carotene. Polyphenolic compounds found in tamarind can prevent ulcers.
While eating tamarind pulp alone does not offer pain relief, there is evidence that extracts made from many parts of the plant might help with pain.
Tamarind is rich in fiber and has no fat content. Studies suggest that eating tamarind daily can help in weight reduction since it contains flavonoids and polyphenols. Also, tamarind is loaded with hydroxycitric acid, which reduces your appetite by inhibiting amylase, an enzyme responsible for converting carbohydrate into fat.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are necessary for the body to grow and repair tissues. Some amino acids are essential, meaning that the body can’t synthesize them, so people must get them from food. Tamarind contains significant amounts of all the essential amino acids except tryptophan. It meets the standards of the World Health Organization for an ideal protein for the other amino acids.
Tamarind has been used since ancient times as a laxative because of its tartaric acid, malic acid, and potassium content. Its ability to relax abdominal muscles is why it is also used as a remedy for diarrhea. So, while the fruit is used to relieve constipation, the leaves provide treatment from diarrhea, and the root and bark can be consumed to alleviate abdominal pain.
How to Buy
You’ll find that recipes either call for tamarind concentrate or tamarind paste.
Tamarind concentrate is a thick syrup that comes in a jar. Tamarind paste is made by starting with either mature pods or blocks of shelled, pressed tamarinds and then separating the pulp from the seeds and fibers and adding just enough water to make a paste.
You should be able to find the blocks of pressed tamarind in well-stocked grocery stores and international markets, especially Indian, Latin, or Southeast Asian markets. For the pods, check all of the same locations, usually from April through July.
How to Store
Store whole pods in a cool, dark place at room temperature. After opening, stored pods tightly wrapped in the refrigerator will stay good for at least three months. Simply cut off the amount you want to use with a sharp, heavy knife. Well wrapped, frozen, unsweetened tamarind pulp keeps indefinitely in the freezer.
How to Cook
Here’s how to make tamarind paste if you’re starting with a block: First, soften it by soaking it in lukewarm water. Next, use your hands to start breaking it up, loosening the pulp from the fibers and any lingering seeds (often the blocks will be labeled as deseeded, but you still might find a few stray ones). Then press that mixture through a fine mesh sieve to separate out the pulp and leave the fibers behind.
If you’re beginning with tamarind pods, you’ll need to remove the shells and separate the pulp from the seeds – often by boiling and/or soaking the internal contents of the pods in water before you get started. Like tamarind concentrate, you can also find tamarind paste in a jar. But, you’ll get the best flavor by making it yourself.
Roasted New Potatoes with Garlic and Tamarind
Nik Sharma/ Photo credit: Nik Sharma for the New York Times
- 1 ½ pounds yellow new potatoes, about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in width
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons unsalted vegan butter, melted (I like MELT)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and grated
- 2 tablespoons tamarind paste (not concentrate)
- 1 tablespoon date syrup, honey or maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon lime juice
- 1 medium shallot, peeled and minced
- 2 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 1 green chile, such as a serrano or Thai chile, minced (optional)
- Heat oven to 425 degrees and place a rack in the top third of the oven.
- Scrub the potatoes under running water to remove any grit or dirt. Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise and place them in a medium saucepan. Fill the saucepan with enough water to cover them by 1 inch. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for another 6 minutes until easily pierced with a sharp knife but still firm.
- Drain the water and place the potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt. Drizzle the oil and sprinkle the cumin over the potatoes, and toss to coat well. In a roasting pan or baking sheet lined with parchment paper, spread the potatoes out, cut-side up. Roast on the upper rack of the oven, flipping halfway through roasting, until they turn golden brown and crispy, about 35 minutes.
- As the potatoes cook, mix the butter and garlic in a small bowl. Two or three minutes before the potatoes are done, pour the butter-garlic mixture over the potatoes and turn off the oven. Leave the pan in the oven to cook in the residual heat for 2 to 3 minutes, being careful not to let the garlic burn. Remove the pan from the oven, and transfer the potatoes to a serving bowl.
- In a small bowl, mix the tamarind paste, date syrup and lime juice. When ready to serve, pour the mixture over the potatoes and toss to coat well. Top with the shallots, scallions, cilantro and green chile, if using. Serve warm.
Doukky, R., Avery, E., Mangla, A., et al. Impact of dietary sodium restriction on heart failure outcomes. JACC Heart Fail. 2016 Jan;4(1):24-35
Hyman, M., Food what the Heck Should I Eat?, 2018, Little, Brown, and Company, NY
Bryson, B, The Body, A guide for Occupants, 2019, Doubleday, NY