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Behind the Line: Salt lick

Restaurateurs aim to kick the sodium habit by focusing on other flavor enhancers

By Lauren Kramer
January 01, 2010

Low-sodium has become a buzzword for healthy eating, particularly as scientific research continues to note correlations between excessive sodium intake and the development of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. According to an August 2009 report by Chicago-based Mintel, 52 percent of American consumers are monitoring the amount of sodium in their diets.

Companies large and small have started taking a serious look at the sodium content of their products and some have taken dramatic steps to trim the salt. Mintel's Global New Products Database indicated that the number of food products designed to have no-, low- or reduced-sodium levels increased 115 percent between 2005 and 2008.

ConAgra Foods pledged in October to reduce salt across its portfolio of food products by 20 percent by 2015. The company has been chipping away at its salt content since 2006 and has already removed more than 2 million pounds of salt from its products. The company's most recent pledge means the removal of another 8 million pounds of salt from its 160 product varieties.

"This is a definite challenge, but one that is very worthwhile and one we are confident we can meet," says Al Bolles, ConAgra's executive VP of research, quality and innovation.

A July 2009 lawsuit by a New Jersey man against Denny's Corp. inspired many restaurant operators to take a new look at sodium. In what was the first-ever sodium-related lawsuit against a restaurant chain, attorneys for Nick DeBenedetto tried to get the 1,500-unit chain to disclose the amount of sodium in each of its dishes and place a warning on menus about high sodium levels in the food. Some Denny's meals provide more sodium than most adults should consume in three days.

The class-action lawsuit, supported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, claimed that most Denny's meals are dangerously high in sodium, putting diners at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. The lawsuit was dismissed in November because DeBenedetto could not prove injury under New Jersey's personal liability and consumer protection laws. Despite the lawsuit's dismissal, such cases are raising consumer awareness about the health impact of sodium in the diet.

One chef making a concerted effort to find a replacement for salt in his dishes is Troy Graves, executive chef at Eve in Chicago.

"High blood pressure runs in my family, so I'm sensitive to the issue of sodium," he says. "As a chef I focus on flavor and salt is obviously the No. 1 way to bring out flavor. But I also know it's not the only way."

Since Eve opened in November 2008, Graves has frequently used vinaigrettes, fruits, citrus juices or herbs to enhance flavor instead of salt. He menued shrimp recently and tossed it with dukkah, feta cheese and scallions. "Sprinkle that mixture on fish and you generally don't need salt at all," he says.

Graves focuses on the dish as a whole, creating a flavorful plate that reduces the need for excessive seasoning of a particular protein. "If the whole dish is really flavorful, the fish itself doesn't need to be as heavily seasoned because it creates the same excitement in your mouth as salt would," he says.

In October he featured salmon, serving it with seared scallops, pumpkin purée, cranberry compote and pistachio gremolata. "The garlic, lemon and nuts create a flavor profile that doesn't really require any sodium," he says. Another seafood dish featuring wahoo is served seared with purple sticky rice, lemongrass-orange juice and a salad of mangos and cucumbers.

"The broth is really 
aromatic and you have the sweetness from the mangos and cucumbers, and the lime juice, which makes it acidic," says the self-trained chef. "It's really about the whole dish, not just the fish."

Graves began his career 15 years ago at LaSalle Grill in South Bend, Ind., and worked at Chicago's 
Meritage Café and Wine Bar, and at Tallulah (in Lincoln Square, now called LM Le Restaurant). The Metromix Chicago Web site lauded Graves' work in a February 2009 review: "Graves is establishing himself as a force among Chicago's 
contemporary American chefs, and his work at Eve 
is only enhancing his growing reputation."

Over the past two years Graves has noticed more diners requesting lower-sodium meals. "People are starting to realize that too much sodium is not good for you, so many will come in and ask us not to add any extra salt to their dish," he says.

Still, Eve is a far cry from a health-food restaurant and doesn't pretend to be one. "We don't publicize the amount of sodium we use - we're just trying to be responsible," he says. "At the end of the day, sodium is still the best seasoning. We're just trying to find ways to use less of it."


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South Portland, Maine


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