Should you be using a salt substitute?

Ironically, some no-salt salts might be a bad idea, health-wise

Should you be using a salt substitute?

The dangers of consuming too much salt has become an international health issue, with governments setting new intake targets | Photograph by Jessica Darmanin, Illustration by Taylor Shute

The question seemed simple enough: “What does the test kitchen think about salt substitutes?” Diane Boeri of Worcester, Mass., had sent a letter to Cook’s Illustrated, the Boston-based magazine that employs chefs and scientists to develop foolproof recipes and compare products. Her request, which was published in the latest issue’s “Notes from Readers” section, was for help making sense of the ever-growing variety of salt alternatives occupying supermarket shelves.

In reality, it’s a loaded question. Fanatics insist there is no substitute for salt—that the taste and texture and the way it changes food can’t be replicated. Health nuts argue that using no salt or an imitation substance is the best choice—and swear that quitting cold turkey isn’t so bad.

Boeri’s question is timely too. The dangers of consuming too much salt (high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, to name a few) has become an international health issue, with governments rewriting guidelines and setting reduction policies and new intake targets. Health Canada recommends that the average Canadian should consume no more than 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day—or up to one teaspoon, says Cara Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian in Toronto. In fact, however, “the average sodium intake is 3,100 milligrams a day,” she notes. “Double what we need.”

Given this, more and more people are looking at “salternatives” as a way of cutting back on table salt while still enjoying a salty taste. While salt substitutes appear to be a burgeoning product category in Canada, they have boomed in the U.S., where a stroll through the grocery aisle might turn up half a dozen or more brands with clever (if copycat-ish) names including Biosalt, Lite Salt, LoSalt, NoSalt, Nu-Salt, K-Salt, and AlsoSalt. These shouldn’t be confused with “flavour enhancers” (such as Mrs. Dash) that contain only herbs and spices and are sometimes used as salt alternatives.

Instead, these products replace some or all of the sodium chloride found in table salt with another chemical compound, potassium chloride, which is also a white, odourless crystal. But as the chefs at Cook’s learned when they compared four brands (Biosalt, Lite Salt, LoSalt and NoSalt), potassium chloride possesses an “extremely bitter quality,” says associate editor Bryan Roof, that can taste “repulsive” and “acrid”—similar to eating an underripe persimmon.

By trying each product three ways—dissolved in water, cooked into rice and shaken on popcorn—a dozen Cook’s testers were able to distinguish individual characteristics. The results: “None of them were preferred over salt,” says Roof, who is also a chef and dietitian. “But there were some that were better than others.”

The key to an “acceptable” salt substitute, Cook’s concluded, is a high ratio of sodium chloride to potassium chloride, which mitigates the bitterness. Not surprisingly then, the worst tasting of the four tested was the one containing only potassium chloride, NoSalt. “It got you inside the throat and underneath your tongue,” recalls Roof. “Just a bad overall mouth feel.”

Taste aside, there is an ironic reason why salt substitutes might be a bad idea: too much potassium chloride is unhealthy for people with heart or kidney problems, or who are on certain medications. For this reason, Rosenbloom stresses the importance of speaking with a doctor or dietitian before using salt substitutes.

And if neither salt nor salt substitutes are options, then online food discussion boards have other suggestions: lemon, lime, granulated sea kelp or sesame seeds, fish sauce, chili powder, ground cumin, minced garlic.

But for salt lovers like Roof, who keeps many kinds in his kitchen—“Himalayan, Mayan River, fleur de sel, sel gris, kosher, Chardonnay smoked, Maldon”—the notion of replacing the real stuff is misguided. Since 77 per cent of our daily sodium intake comes from processed foods, he thinks cutting those items out of our diet—while adding salt to season home-cooked meals—is best. “There has to be an overhaul to the way people think, eat and buy food,” says Roof. “It would cancel the need for substitutes.”




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Should you be using a salt substitute?

  1. Given that potassium chloride potassium is a salt (a metal halide salt) people are being mislead by any company that says that using it means you are using less salt. Worse yet, calling it "NoSalt" just because it lacks sodium chloride is misrepresentation and speaks to the level of scientific ignorance among us.

  2. We have use NO salt, over the last couple of years, its only when I met a dietian found that it was not good for people with Heart and Diabetes, so it went in the bin, think I will try the Mrs.Dash stuff and see how it works!

  3. Jeez, I'm a salt-aholic and I have been using salt substitutes. I guess its time saw goodbye to salt all together. It just seems like all the substitutes are just as bad as the food itself.

  4. I was taken-a-back— no mention of the importance of "ionized" salt as neccessary to good health! e.g. tyroid problems??

  5. "Salt" is sodium chloride, the sodium is the bad part which is why it doesn't matter that potassium chloride is also a "salt" because potassium doesn't raise your blood pressure, while sodium does (only for some salt-sensitive people, however). These salts break down in saliva to the basic components – ions – which is why "ionized" salt is meaningless (iodized salt on the other hand is good for you, but I think most salt has iodine added, except for sea salt. Hence, you should also check all your foods for sodium, because there's way more of that than you suspect – Corn Flakes, bread, All Bran – virtually anything that uses baking soda. Read labels and you'll be amazed how many products have sodium and just how much. You can also eat too much potassium which will stop your heart, so unless you're taking strong diuretics prescribed by your doctor I'd avoid the salt substitutes which really don't taste that great anyway and are expensive.

  6. A newer product that is even better than salt is True Lemon- it is a dried lemon powder and all natural, there is also True Lime and now True Orange.
    I sprinkle the lemon one on everything I make and always add some to water.
    You can buy this at some natural food stores, groceries or online.
    The lemon and lime of True Lemon brands adds more taste than just plain salt.

    It is nice that Macleans mentioned too much potassium is bad for people with heart and kidney problems.
    The kidney foundation on their website does not mention this.
    Also the kidney foundation, their nutrition chart is wrong and actually recommends the foods with more potassium.
    I mentioned this to the Ontario chapter and they told me they were just going by what their dietitians told them and staff had not looked at the actual numbers for foods!

  7. This article is a cautionary tale for all of us. In this day and age, we need to be very mindful of what ingredients are in the foods we consume. I recently read about a man who says he doesn't eat anything his grandmother would not have recognized as food. Good idea. That cuts out any processed foods including margarine & canned soups; salt substitutes; no-fat products, diet drinks & the list goes on. Our bodies are set up to counter balance and rid themselves of things like too much potassium from eating bananas UNLESS we have kidney failure. Most of us can salt our food with regular salt. It is all that hidden salt in processed food & pop, etc. that we can't handle, especially if we are genetically predisposed to hypertension.

  8. Moderation is the word. People seem to think that all of these substitues will work. Most of them have chmicals in them which are worst for you than the real stuff. MODERATION in the answer

  9. Natural things will always be the best! I don’t think salt substitute would be a good idea.

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  10. Hi we make a reduced sodium sea salt in a large crystal suitable for a grinder . Freshly ground it tastes just like sea salt but 66.7 per cent less sodium. it is a real different product compared to the existing fine powders. Also no additives or anti caking agents jjust sea salt and potassium salt. We also make other reduced sodium spice seasonings have a look on Milldownsalt.com

  11. I use garlic powder instead of salt: it has less salt, then the salt substitutes I used and taste a lot better. Might give it a try?

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