Pass the herbs; hold the salt

Picture yourself making dinner. But instead of reaching for the salt shaker, you step outside and snip a few leaves of fresh herbs growing in your garden.

Americans love their salt. In fact, most of us love sodium far more than we should. The average American consumes more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day – almost twice as much as the recommended daily amount for healthy adults, which is 2,300 milligrams a day. People with certain risk factors, mainly individuals who have high blood pressure and/or are middle-aged or older, should consume even less; 1,500 milligrams a day is recommended.

What’s the big deal about sodium? Historically, salt was a valuable commodity and an important preservative for food. And a certain amount of sodium, of course, is necessary for overall health. When the body’s level of sodium drops too low, hyponatremia can be the result. Too much sodium, on the other hand, has been linked to elevated blood pressure and the twin risks of heart disease and stroke.

There’s some disagreement on whether too much dietary salt is indeed bad for our health. Although many studies have documented the association between sodium and high blood pressure, it’s not entirely clear how to interpret this. If you consume less salt, will this alone reduce your risk of hypertension, or do you need to make other dietary and lifestyle changes as well?

More importantly, high sodium intake is often a marker for overall eating habits. Most experts believe it isn’t salt per se that’s the villain; it’s Americans’ reliance on fast food and processed and packaged foods which are high in sodium. The salt shaker, in fact, accounts for only about 5 or 6 percent of the typical American’s daily salt intake; all the rest comes from processed foods. Check out the sodium content here for common foods such as bacon, ketchup and processed cheese.

Cutting back on sodium is hard, though. It’s especially difficult for people who’ve recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure or congestive heart failure and must change long-standing eating habits. One of the biggest complaints, not surprisingly, is that low-sodium food is often bland, monotonous and unappetizing.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you want to cut down your salt intake without sacrificing flavor, many nutrition counselors suggest trying herbs and spices instead.

You can buy dried herbs just about anywhere, of course. And many supermarkets sell fresh herbs year round. There’s no substitute, however, for growing your own.

I’ve grown herbs for years. (The picture above is of my chives when they were in bloom earlier this month. Both the leaves and the flowers are edible.) This summer I’m raising rosemary, mint, lavender, catnip, parsley, coriander, bee balm, calendula, oregano, sage, thyme, chives and two kinds of basil.

Herbs are among some of the easiest plants to grow. They’re relatively pest-free and, other than routine watering, don’t require a lot of fussy maintenance. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t have room for a garden. Many herbs adapt well to containers and can continue to grow indoors during the winter months. I especially like container herbs because 1) they don’t need to be weeded; and 2) the containers can be set on a deck or balcony or windowsill, within convenient reach of snipping off a sprig or two.

If you don’t know how to use fresh herbs, fear not. A Google search of “cooking with herbs”will easily generate hundreds of references. Your local public library is another good place to go for information.

Maybe you’ll discover, as I did, that growing your own herbs will encourage you to find ways of using them. There’s something inspiring about the scent of freshly cut mint or the soft pebbly texture of a leaf of sage. Before you know it, you’ll probably find yourself cooking at home more often and using fresh, rather than processed, ingredients. It’s a strategy that not only will help you cut down on your sodium intake - and benefit your health – but will make the process less painful and actually even enjoyable.

Photo credit: HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta