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updated: 8/10/2011 11:17 AM

Herbs, spices boost flavor sans the sodium

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  • Fire & Ice Melon Salad relies on cilantro and ginger, not salt, for seasoning.

      Fire & Ice Melon Salad relies on cilantro and ginger, not salt, for seasoning.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer


How much sodium do you consume each day? Most likely, too much.

The typical American consumes an average of 3,400 milligrams a day, far above the 2,300 milligrams a day the Dietary Guidelines recommend to keep high blood pressure, and by association, heart disease and stroke, at bay.

For people 51 and older, African Americans and anyone with diabetes, high blood pressure or chronic kidney disease, the daily sodium recommendation is even lower -- 1,500 milligrams -- since these individuals are already at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

As those numbers prove, we need to lower the amount of sodium in our diet and a good place to start is with our salt shaker.

Taste is the No. 1 factor that drives us to eat, and for generations we've relied on salt to keep foods tasty. Yet by seasoning food with fresh or dried herbs and spices we can decrease -- or eliminate altogether -- salt in our home-cooked foods while keeping them full of flavor.

Summer is a great time to make this change since many fresh, garden-grown herbs are available. At first your taste buds might miss the bright spark of salt, but over a few weeks you'll grow to enjoy the lively flavors of herbs and spices.

Some spices even have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are substances that may protect your cells against the effects of unstable molecules called free radicals. Free radicals can damage cells, and may play a role in heart disease, cancer and other diseases. So antioxidants are like soldiers that help protect our bodies.

To get the most flavor for each sprinkle keep in mind the amount of fresh herbs needed in a recipe is usually three times more than dried. For example, if a sauce recipe calls for teaspoon dried basil, you'll need 1 teaspoons fresh basil.

Fresh herbs are best when added toward the end of cooking to maximize flavor, while dried herbs benefit from longer steeping in stews and sauces.

If you use dried herbs, check once a year for freshness by using the sniff test. Sprinkle a small amount of the herb or spice in your hand and crush it, then sniff it. If you don't smell a rich aroma of the seasoning, throw it out.

Here are some of my favorite ways to use fresh herbs.

• Mix oregano with 1 teaspoon olive oil and drizzle over a baked potato instead of loading it with butter and sour cream.

• Sprinkle rosemary over chicken or vegetables for a delicious boost of flavor.

• Add thyme leaves to sauteed mushrooms, potato salad or even scrambled eggs.

Try this recipe: Mixing herbs from the garden into a bowl of sliced fresh fruit adds zing to this simple dish. See, healthy food can be tasty and delicious and protect your heart.

• Toby Smithson is a registered dietitian with the Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center and a national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.