Health reasons aside, by being aware of the sodium in your ingredients, you will also become a more active participant in building and balancing the tastes in a dish.
By being “sodium mindful,” you’ll start seasoning consciously, sometimes opting for a less salty product and other times, choosing it on purpose for a flavor advantage—like using a bit of Parmesan or chopped anchovies to perk things up instead of plain salt from the shaker. And you’ll create food that tastes bright and nuanced, versus muddled (see: dump salt into this or that). That’s something anyone—with sodium sensitivities or not—can get behind.
Here are 10 places where sodium hides and what to do about it:
This one’s obvious: Soy sauce, Teriyaki sauce, fish sauce, and miso all contain a lot of sodium—a single tablespoon of soy sauce, for example, equals around 1,000mg of sodium. These products also contain a lot of umami, so if you don’t need to limit your sodium intake, use these ingredients to give simple roasted brussels sprouts or summer corn a savory punch. To cut back, supplement with other natural umami ingredients, like tomatoes, green tea, and mushrooms.
Certain spices, like garlic powder and mustard powder, may come padded with salt. Many store-bought blends also contain salt as a part of their flavor equation. So whether it is a BBQ rub or a specific curry mix, check labels on packaging to find out if salt has been added. To be in even more in control: It’s really easy to make your own blends at home—including ones you’d never find at your grocery store, like matcha salt and tomato salt.
A single slice of bread lands around 200mg sodium, depending on the brand, which is far from terrible, but a good reminder to choose your loaf (and bread crumbs!) wisely. Make morning toast count by picking one brimming with other flavors from the likes of oats, whole grains, herbs, nuts, and seeds. And if you feel inspired, roll up your sleeves and bake your own.
It’s quite typical for a store-bought chicken to come pre-plumped or injected and brined with a salty solution before it hits the store—sometimes increasing sodium by 500%. The same can be true for pork, shrimp, and seafood. To avoid plumping, pass on products that list “added broth,” “enhanced,” or “brined” on the label. And look for birds (and pork and seafood) that say “air-chilled’ and “no water added.” Then add your own brine and seasonings at home.
Remember the bread we talked about? A lot of that sodium doesn’t come from salt but from the addition of baking powder (around 400mg sodium per teaspoon) and baking soda (over 1,000mg per teaspoon). This is also why baked goods of all shapes and sizes run quite high on the sodium scale. If you wish to avoid the added sodium, stick to yeast-based recipes, like these English muffins.
Not all frozen vegetables are equal. Some products, like peas, will contain no sodium while others contain upwards of 100mg per cup, depending on the brand. The difference? Pre-seasoning and blanching—a technique used to quickly cook vegetables while maintaining a vibrant color, often using salted water. Whether it is the frozen foods section or a side of spinach at a restaurant, a salt-water blanch (or parboil) will add extra sodium to the dish. Just be aware and avoid salty overload by giving vegetables a taste first before adding your own pinch.
Rice naturally contains no sodium. Sushi rice, however, is a different story. Traditionally, long grain rice gets mixed together with sugar, salt, and seasoned vinegar to form the sticky padding used for those sushi rolls and onigiri. And seasoned vinegar often means over 200mg sodium per tablespoon. It’s easy to avoid extra sodium by simply using non-seasoned vinegar. And replacing plain salt with more interesting, salty stand-ins, like chopped seaweed or furikake.
This is usually the biggest sodium shock for those reading the carton for the first time. One cup of cow milk equals about 100mg of sodium. A small cup of yogurt means about the same. And buttermilk and condensed milk land at 250mg and 400mg per cup, depending on product. Even nut milks and soy milks contribute around 100mg of sodium per cup—unless you make your own. This doesn’t mean you should avoid milk: Instead, use it to your flavor advantage, like in a yogurt pasta sauce, buttermilk stew, or chicken.
Salt is one of the most important parts of the pickling and preserving process. And while you don’t need salt to get a pickle-ish taste—vinegar plus strong herbs and spices will get the job done, like here. Whether you choose cornichons or capers or good ‘ol dill, a little bit of pickle will add a salty, briny kick for a better egg (or potato) salad and anything from the summer BBQ, like a grilled watermelon salad.
My favorite sneaky sodium contributor has to be whole foods (the ingredients, not the store). Celery contains 50mg per large stalk; eggs have around 70mg of sodium per egg; cooked Swiss chard equals 300mg sodium per cup; and even unassuming cantaloupe has 25mg per cup. What does this all mean?
Use whole foods and their naturally “salty” tastes to round out the flavors of a dish, like using roasted carrot or chard stems to flavor hummus or velvet beet juice to make a bloody Mary mix, versus the canned stuff. In general, meat and produce naturally provides the whole spectrum of tastes to play with. So remember, start with the food first before simply reaching for (or dumping that) shaker.