A Salty New Year

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. If one of yours is cutting down on your salt intake and you’re gnashing your teeth at the thought of missing out on one of the great food pleasures, consider that deprivation might not be the answer:

Seventy-five percent of the sodium in the standard American diet comes from processed and restaurant foods (1). So eat whole, fresh foods and you most likely won’t have to cheat yourself on table and recipe salt or puzzle over sodium milligrams on labels and menus.

The real issue is sodium-to-potassium ratio. The modern diet contains too much sodium and not enough potassium. Current intake of these two vital electrolytes, which work together to maintain cardiovascular and cellular health, is a complete reversal of the optimal ratio humans once consumed (2). Studies show that increasing potassium intake improves heart health, even if you fail to lower sodium: the ratio of the two matters more than the amount of either one (3).

Veggies, fruits and legumes abound in potassium, so once again the solution is joyful consumption of tasty, whole, fresh foods.

Spinach, chard, mushrooms, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, beans & lentils, and root veggies (with the skin on) are all great sources of potassium. Go ahead – salt them! Preferably with sea salt, which boosts both taste and nutrition. (And drizzle or toss with olive oil or butter – fat is key not only to pleasure but to absorbing fat-soluble vitamins.) Papayas, avocados, bananas, melons and oranges are great fruit sources of potassium.

Supplementing with potassium or salt substitutes using potassium chloride risks creating the opposite imbalance – which can be quite dangerous – so do stick with food. However, there are some great food-based salt/low-salt substitutes, such as gomasio, which use ingredients like ground sesame seeds, spices & herbs, and sea veggies. Sea veggies provide iodine.

Be sure to vary your sources – overdoing sugary/starchy foods like bananas, potatoes, and orange juice is a common mistake for those seeking potassium. (Do avoid orange and other fruit juice – even fresh it’s nearly as big a sugar-shock as Coke. Eat the whole fruit instead.)

Not everyone is salt-sensitive. While there are good reasons to keep your sodium-potassium ratio properly balanced regardless of blood pressure, not everyone’s blood pressure responds to changes in sodium intake. Researchers estimate that about 26 percent of people with normal blood pressure and 58 percent of those with high blood pressure are salt sensitive (4).

Unrefined sea salt beats commercial salt. Sea salt has a stronger (& more interesting) flavor, so you don’t have to use as much. It contains trace minerals that boost and balance your body’s mineral status. And it doesn’t have additives like dextrose and silicates. We’re talking unrefined here. If it’s white, it’s refined, so don’t be fooled.

Dextrose is added to commercial salt to stabilize the added iodine. Calcium or aluminum silicate and equivalent additives prevent caking. Salt companies argue these are added in insignificant quantities. But we are just beginning to understand the impact of continuous low-level exposure to the hundreds of irritants and allergens that hit our guts every day in processed food. They also argue that you need the added iodine. I say touché there (though if you’re eating a balanced, varied diet you may well not need it), but consider getting your iodine from ocean fish, seafood, certain veggies and dairy products, and sea veggies (sea veggies are in food-based salt substitutes or get them from, say, sprinkling dulse flakes on your salads and soups).

As for the caking, I don’t mind shaking or tapping out the lumps in my salt shaker, but adding a few uncooked rice grains to your shaker will help keep it flowing if that’s a concern for you.

Yes, unrefined sea salt is more expensive than commercial salt. The best sea-salt bargain is Redmond’s Real Salt, particularly when it’s sold in bulk, as it is at many natural food stores. It’s a fraction of the cost of most gourmet sea salts, cheap enough for everyday use. But do experiment with varieties like Celtic, Himalayan, Black, and Hawaiian if you can.

Your new year of wellness should be about joy and abundance, not deprivation. So eat a delicious whole-foods diet and enjoy your salt, dammit. (And your fat, too, if it comes from whole, clean, fresh, pastured sources.)

Sure, transitioning to a whole-foods diet takes effort. But given the number of problems it addresses in one fell swoop – heart health, obesity, healthy aging, looks, energy, mood & cognition, prevention & management of chronic disease and pain, you name it – even people who are too lazy to shake the lumps out of their salt should seriously consider it.

References

1. U.S. FDA, “For Consumers; Lowering Salt in Your Diet,” May 18, 2010, http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm181577.htm

2. Morris, R. Curtis, Dept. of Medicine, UCSF, “Relationship and Interaction between Sodium and Potassium,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2006 Jun;25(3 Suppl):262S-270S, http://www.jacn.org/content/25/suppl_3/262S.long

3. Cook, Nancy, “Joint Effects of Sodium and Potassium Intake on Subsequent Cardiovascular Disease,” Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(1):32-40,  cited in L.A. Times, “Study: Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio a Key to Heart Health,” Emily Sohn, Feb. 23, 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/feb/23/health/he-sodium23 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2629129/?tool=pubmed

4. NIH News Release, “Study Shows New Link Between Salt Sensitivity and Risk of Death,” Feb. 15, 2001, http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/new/press/01-02-15.htm

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Must you buy all organic?

As a holistic nutritionist, sustainability buff, and wellness exemplar to the world, you would think I myself would buy only organic produce. So do I? Well, no.

Sure, USDA organic certification tells you that produce is grown and handled using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and that it has been inspected by an accredited certifying agent who has verified that this is so. (See http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/torg.html and http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5068682 to learn more). But that’s no guarantee that produce is seasonal, local, fresh, or produced with fair labor.

And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: price. Organic certification can be costly for farmers, especially small ones. So while it enables me to know what I’m getting, it also raises the prices of very producers I’m interested in, the small and the local ones.

Part of what you’re paying for at seemingly boutique-priced farmers’ markets and other sellers of organic produce is certified product and some degree of verification and transparency on the part of the operating organization for methods used on non-certified product. (That’s not to say there might not be not some unfair prices markups or other funny business along the organic production and distribution chain, an inquiry for another day.)

But these factors are no reason throw up your hands in despair and just buy whatever’s cheapest, as the conventional agricultural industry would have you do.  (Unless your name is Gumby, in which case I’ll give you a pass, as your brain probably hurts.)

A little mindfulness goes a long way. Nothing is perfect, but once you’ve informed yourself about standards, established your personal priorities, and accepted your budget, the choices become surprisingly easy.

Here are some exceptions I make to the all-organic rule:

I sometimes buy from local farmers who claim to farm organic “under the radar,” keeping their prices down by using organic methods without official certification, especially if they give detailed, forthcoming answers to my questions. But short of perfect oversight by the operating organization (a good reason to shop at farmers markets and grocery stores you trust, and ask plenty of questions), I have to just basically take the word of the person answering the questions, which has its limitations. It’s also unfair to producers who are paying the certification fees and undergoing inspections.

I also sometimes buy from those who are partially organic (technically that’s like being partially pregnant, but pesticide-free would be an example of what I mean) or on their way to being certified. The latter often means they’re farming on soil that hasn’t yet been organically farmed for the required number of years (usually 3 for USDA). That can mean chemical residues in the soil, but it’s still a far cry from conventional.

When my money runs out, I’ll also buy certain items conventional  – those that are on Environmental Working Groups’s “Clean 15”  list and not on their “Dirty Dozen” (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/), which of course addresses the health issue and the price issue but not necessarily the environmental/political one.

According to EWG, you can cut your pesticide load by 92 percent by consuming conventional “Clean 15” produce and avoiding the “Dirty Dozen,” buying organic only when the conventional is on the dirty dozen list. That’s compelling enough for those on a tight budget. If you can’t afford to buy all or mostly organic this is a great way to save money. But when I buy conventional, I do try to keep it local – easy enough to do in California.

Since reading about the huge amount of lead in some local soil (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/how-safe-is-your-soil/Content?oid=2947105), I won’t buy urban garden produce unless I know they’ve tested and, if necessary, remediated, and exactly how. You’d be far better off with pesticides, herbicides, and GMO than with lead.

To understand what organic means, visit http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/torg.html.

For EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists, visit: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/.

Local: Phat Beets Farmers’ Markets

Phat Beets (http://www.phatbeetsproduce.org/) is an Oakland nonprofit dedicated to providing affordable access to fresh produce though the creation of farmers’ markets and youth-powered gardens. They run three farmers’ markets in North Oakland.

The farmers are all small and local, and I filled my usual shopping basket with extremely fresh produce for about 40 percent less than it would have cost me at the major organic farmers’ markets in Oakland and Berkeley.

Not all the vendors are certified organic, however. In fact, most are not. Many are in the process of certification; others provide various combinations of partially organic (e.g., pesticide-free) and what’s ultimately pretty much conventional (see vendor guide, below).

That doesn’t mean what’s on offer is not worthwhile or no better than conventional supermarket produce: it’s still local, fresh, affordable food that benefits the community and leans towards organic. But problem is there’s not much information provided about what you’re actually getting on a given item, and vending staff wasn’t able to provide much detail the day I was there.

Phat Beets isn’t making any false claims. They just want to get lower-income people fresh, local food from small local producers, and that’s what they’re doing. But if you’re looking for a deal on organic at a Phat Beets market you should use my vendor guide to know what you’re buying.

Part of what you’re paying for at the seemingly boutique-priced farmers’ markets like the ones the Ecology Center runs is organic certification and some degree of verification and transparency for methods used on non-certified food.

Organic certification can be a double-edged sword. It’s very expensive for farmers, especially small ones. So while it enables you to know what you’re getting if you understand the standards (http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/torg.html), it also raises small producers’ prices. (That’s not to say the bigger ones might not be marking up the price unfairly, an inquiry for another day.)

Organic certification is no guarantee that produce is seasonal, local, or produced with fair labor, and those are important considerations, too. But that’s no reason throw up your hands in despair and just buy whatever’s cheapest as the conventional agricultural industry would have you do.

A little mindfulness goes a long way. Nothing is perfect, but once you’ve informed yourself about standards, established your personal priorities, and accepted your budget, the choices become surprisingly easy.

I’ll shop again at Phat Beets, especially the Tuesday market, which features the 100-percent certified J & P Organics. But I’ll be sure to take my vendor’s guide with me.

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PHAT BEETS VENDOR GUIDE

5715 Market Street, Saturdays

Vang Family Farms. Clovis/Fresno, CA. Not certified organic. They use DiPel (http://www.valentbiosciences.com/docs/pdfs/learning_center/LC_DiPel.pdf), an organically-approved pesticide, to control pests in their tomatoes, and organic fertilizer. But they also use Roundup between rows and before planting in addition to hoeing and hand-weeding. So I guess you could call them semi-organic – probably better than supermarket conventional, but not organic. See http://www.ecologycenter.org/bfm/vendors/farm-facts.php?vendor=Vang%20Family%20Farm&id=10277.

Firme Farms. Stockton, CA.  In process of getting organic certification (they say by end of 2011).  Wide variety of veggies. See http://www.firmefarms.com.

J&J Farms. Hughson, CA. Not certified organic. Phat Beets says J&J grows oranges and tomatoes and pesticide-free stone fruit. I take that wording to mean the oranges and tomatoes are conventional, so I might buy the pesticide-free stone fruit (not organic but closer to it) but not the oranges & tomatoes. However, other farmers are offering organic oranges and tomatoes; you gotta ask which farm the stuff comes from to know what you’re buying. See (http://jandjfarmsca.blogspot.com/ & http://www.phatbeetsproduce.org/farmers-markets/north-oakland-children’s-hospital.

Scott’s Family Farms. Fresno County, CA.  In process of getting organic certification. Farmer Will Scott is president of California Assoc of African American Farmers. He farms without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Various fruits and veggies.  See http://www.phatbeetsproduce.org/order-a-beet-box/scotts-family-farm/.

747 52nd St  (Children’s Hospital), 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays.

The Tuesday Phat Beets Market has J&P organics, which says it’s is all certified organic (http://www.jporganics.com/). They also have J&J Ramos, which is mixed, so watch which one you’re buying from if your priority is certification.

675 41st Street (St. Martin de Porres Catholic School) 2:30 – 5:30 Wednesdays.

Supported by the school. The farmers are not listed on Phat Beets website; whether it’s the same farmers as above or produce grown by the school or both or some other deal is not indicated.