Taking back the shaker

Published in FSD Update

Operators find solutions to lower sodium.

robert-wood-johnson-mango-salmon

Robert Wood Johnson’s mango salmon uses fresh ingredients to bring out the flavor without adding salt. 

Whether by requirement or voluntarily, more non-commercial operators than ever are taking measures to lower sodium levels on their menus. Here’s how they’re trying to slash salt without sacrificing flavor.

To cope with the first tier of stricter government regulations on sodium levels in K-12 meals, some schools are seeking lower salt versions of processed foods from vendors. Chesapeake Public Schools, in Virginia, has largely eliminated salty breaded proteins (such as chicken strips) in favor of lower sodium flavorings like barbecue sauce. Hamburgers made with small amounts of ground mushroom also are on the menu, since mushrooms provide savory flavor without the need for as much salt. The district has also found a sodium-friendly cheese pizza but with a serving size that’s smaller than what students are used to, says Joanne Kinsey, director of school nutrition services.

While meeting the first set of sodium requirements has gone smoothly, some operators feel that the second and third set of target guidelines (to be implemented in 2017-2018 and 2022-2023) are extreme and may be difficult to meet, especially with processed products. “It seems like vendors are working on making products that meet the requirements, but we might have to make more [housemade],” says Kate Gillihan, dietitian at Spring Independent School District, in Texas.

Saint Paul Public Schools, in Minnesota, is already taking the housemade route, and it’s been a success. There, kitchen staff make chow mein, Thai sweet and sour, sesame, Szechuan and teriyaki sauces with low-sodium soy sauce. They also use low-sodium chicken or vegetable base in sauces for sloppy Joes, pizza, gravy and stew. The housemade versions are critical to keeping salt levels in check and give staff the control to adjust recipes as sodium regulations continue to tighten. “We can do a slow, incremental decrease of sodium,” says Nutrition Specialist Angie Gaszak.

The district is also cutting salt with housemade French bread, focaccia, pizza crusts and muffins, but these are still in the experimental phase. “Our game plan is to drop [sodium] by about 25%. It’ll be about balancing and doing quality control tests to see how much salt we can remove before quality suffers,” Gaszak says.

Public schools could take a few sodium-reducing cues from other institutions. At Miami University, in Ohio, relying on other flavor-rich ingredients is key. Dried and fresh herbs are used to create in-house seasoning blends, as well as add depth to soups and broths. Adding acid to recipes can also trick the tongue into thinking a recipe has more salt. “Our chimichurri sauce really pops, thanks to the vinegar, parsley and spices. It means our diners don’t miss the salt, because there are so many other flavorings happening in the dish,” says Executive Chef Eric Young. Sharp and sour, the herb- and lime-based chimichurri is served alongside spice-dusted yucca fries, eliminating the need for sodium-heavy condiments such as ketchup.

Fresh flavors also are emphasized at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, in New Brunswick, N.J. The hospital’s newly revamped menu relies heavily on fresh herbs, salsas and dry rubs that include dehydrated fruit, fresh garlic and ginger. And customers don’t seem to miss the salt. “Our new mango-dusted salmon with mango salsa sells better than the old salmon dish that used a prepared sauce,” says Timothy Gee, executive chef.