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.”