First off, let's define a few terms. According to this page from the FDA's website, here are some terms with which you should become familiar:
- "Light" : if food is "Low Calorie" and "Low Fat" and sodium is reduced by at least 50%.
- "Light in Sodium": if sodium is reduced by at least 50%.
- "Lightly Salted" : 50% less sodium than normally added to reference food.
- "Very Low Sodium" : 35 mg or less per RACC* (and per 50g if RACC* is small). For meals and main dishes, 35mg or less per 100g.
- "No Salt Added" and "Unsalted" : must declare "This is Not A Sodium Free Food" either adjacent to the claim or on the information panel.
- "Sodium Free" : less than 5 mg per RACC* and per labeled serving (or for meals and main dishes, less than 5 mg per labeled serving).
Okay, so there is the terminology. Now let's take a look at what these things actually mean:
- "Light", "Light in Sodium", and "Lightly Salted" : while better than the regular product (usually by at least 50%), these can still be quite high in salt. If the original product had 1000 mg of sodium per serving, these versions will have 500 mg. Depending on how much sodium you are allowed to have, these might fit your daily requirements. For me, these products are out.
- "Very Low Sodium" : in general this is perfectly acceptable, but you do have to figure out what the serving size is and how much of the product you consume when using it. For instance, the original Tabasco brand hot sauce (the red one, not the green one) has 35 mg of sodium per teaspoon. If you are the kind of person who shakes only a tiny bit of Tabasco onto your food, you'll be perfectly fine. If you're the kind of person who seriously loves the spicy flavor of Tabasco and you shake on a couple of tablespoons, that 35 mg per serving begins to add up and balloons into a couple of hundred milligrams of sodium.
- "No Salt Added" : this one you have to be VERY CAREFUL with. What I didn't understand (and I'm sure I'm not the only one) was that a lot of food has natural sodium in it. I'm not talking about things like bacon; I'm referring to carrots, tomatoes, unbrined chicken breast, beef ... these all have trace (or not-so-trace) amounts of sodium. While no salt has been added to the product, it does not mean it is an appropriate choice. I was SHOCKED to discover that the "No Salt Added" Kitchen Basics Vegetable Stock has 210 mg of sodium PER CUP. Vegetable stock ... I know, right?!
- "Sodium Free" : with less than 5 mg of sodium per serving, have at it!
It slowly began to dawn on me that I was going to have to adopt a cook-for-myself whole foods approach to eating. Meaning that I was going to have to go the grocery store and buy raw ingredients and actually cook them (without salt, of course) for my meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Knowing that restaurants could be a major source of both sodium and butter (I think at some level, we all know this), I suspended all restaurant visits for a couple of weeks until I could begin doing the research required to safely go out for a meal.
Fortunately, freaking out (which I found out I'm quite adept at) over my high blood pressure fueled this initial sodium purge and cook-for-myself attitude for a good solid month. And I won't lie, for the first couple of weeks I did think the food I made for myself was utterly bland. But then something interesting happened -- my palate began to adjust to not having salt. And the crazy thing is that I began tasting foods almost as if it were the first time. Foods tasted cleaner and more pure. I found that I wasn't missing the salt like I thought I would.
Now, I'm not saying this happened overnight and it took a good month for me to adjust, but it did happen. And now, whenever I have the rare "cheat day", I don't eat salty foods. I tried this once and about blew my palate out because the smoked salmon I had eaten and enjoyed just a month prior tasted like nothing but a salt bomb. Instead, on cheat days, I'll have something sweet, like a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a creme brulee (however, that salted caramel cheesecake is still out).
Another tip, and perhaps this works for me since I live alone, is that I never keep sweets in my house. If I want a scoop of ice cream, I'll go to a restaurant or shop and order the smallest size possible (even sweets can have hidden salt if you're not careful). This way, I satisfy the craving with a single serving and can walk away. If I kept these things at home, a) I'd have them more often and b) I'd be tempted to have more than a single serving at a time. I do keep plenty of fresh fruit at home, so if I'm craving something sweet and I'm home, I'll have a banana or an apple.
I'll conclude with this little bit of advice: if you are serious about reducing sodium, carefully read every single label. Don't just look at the amount of sodium per serving, but also the serving size as well. MANY companies make the serving size of their product unrealistically small in order to make it appear that their product is healthier than it really is. The FDA is putting new rules into place that will change this so that companies are required to use a serving size that reflects what consumers actually use, but this isn't in effect yet. Until then, it is up to you to do the math in your head and figure out how much sodium is in each serving you consume.