How to cut sodium from menus while keeping flavor

A new toolkit for restaurant operators offers strategies for sodium reduction

Editor's note: The following column is from Healthy Dining, a company that has been at the forefront of restaurant nutrition since 1990. This series provides restaurant operators with information on industry-related nutrition topics. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Nation's Restaurant News.

Anticipation for the upcoming federal menu labeling legislation, which will require restaurants with 20 or more locations to disclose sodium content, has spurred many restaurants — including Boston Market [4], Moe’s Southwest Grill [5] and Au Bon Pain [6] — to start reducing sodium in menu items to offer more desirable nutrient profiles.

But when calculating the benefits of sodium reduction, many operators agree that along with social responsibility, taste and guest satisfaction are important parts of the equation. To help restaurants cut down on sodium levels in menu items without compromising flavor or guest satisfaction, The Shasta Public Health Department in Shasta, Calif. has partnered with Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians to create a new toolkit for restaurant operators.

The toolkit, Cut the Sodium and Keep the Flavor, [10] offers nine comprehensive strategies for reducing sodium on menus, with tips and examples for each strategy, to help guide the process. The easy-to-digest resource, which was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is available for free download at restaurantnutrition.com [11].

Below are summaries of two of the nine strategies from Cut the Sodium and Keep the Flavor:

Choose lower sodium products. Many food items purchased already contain sodium, so be sure to compare nutrition information between brands as an important first step in sodium reduction. Sodium content can vary widely among brands.

For example: Brand No. 1's tomato sauce with added salt contains 620 mg. of sodium per half cup; brand No. 2's tomato sauce with added salt contains 410 mg. sodium per half cup; brand No 3's tomato sauce with no added salt contains 30 mg. of sodium per half cup; and fresh chopped tomato with onions and garlic contains 10 mg. of sodium per half cup.

Look for ‘no salt added’ or ‘reduced sodium’ products. Many manufacturers are working to decrease the sodium content in food items, but if lower sodium versions of your products are not available, let your distributor know that is important to your restaurant and its guests.

Watch out for condiments and garnishes. Garnishes are important for presentation, but they can add a lot of sodium to a meal quickly. Use fresh fruit, vegetables or herbs as garnishes whenever possible. Similarly, condiments may seem like a small extra, but they can add between 100 mg. and 900 mg. of sodium per tablespoon.

Cut the Sodium and Keep the Flavor also provides specific strategies for all types of cuisines, such as:

Asian:

• Use reduced sodium soy sauce.

• Use less sauce, including soy sauce, oyster sauce, and hoisin sauce.

• Rinse thawed seafood (it may have been glazed with sodium tripolyphosphate to help protect it from freezer burn during storage).

• Marinate meats using a lower sodium recipe rather than ready-made sauces and marinades.

• Don’t add salt to water when cooking rice.

Mexican:

• Use less cheese in quesadillas, enchiladas, etc., and include more vegetables.

• Use dried beans or reduced sodium canned beans.

• Compare the sodium in different brands of tortillas and choose the lowest sodium product.

• Make homemade salsas using little or no salt.

• Use no-salt-added or low-sodium canned tomatoes, beans, and vegetable products, or use them fresh.

• Offer lower sodium salad dressings.

To get started with sodium reduction, restaurant operators can simply identify one or two strategies from the toolkit and implement them in as many recipes as possible. Implementing the tips should ultimately result in a measurable reduction in sodium content when comparing recipes before and after — and guests might like the healthier, less salty items better.

Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., at [email protected] [12].