Fresh spices artfully arranged

8 Spice and Seasoning Options for a Heart-Healthy Diet

NOVEMBER 02, 2022


Most heart failure patients who’ve been prescribed a low-sodium diet have that moment of panic, standing in front of the fridge or cupboard and thinking, “What can I eat?” All your salt-filled standby recipes suddenly feel like enemies to your health and well-being.

It’s time for a mindset makeover. Instead of dwelling on losing salt, reintroduce yourself to a pantry full of new friends who can flavor your food and make you forget the salt altogether.

Here are eight seasonings and spices to enhance flavor.

1. Low-Salt Substitutions

A number of food producers have caught on to the health benefits of a low-salt diet. Fortunately, that means there are myriad options for salt-free and low-salt spice blends to add flavor without sodium. Using pre-blended mixes like Mrs. Dash and iSpice removes the guesswork out of seasoning dishes like grilled chickenseafood and even salad. The benefit of pre-blended spices is the opportunity to get adventurous with your flavor combinations.

Coconut aminos are a great way to get that salty flavor you may be missing from soy sauce with much less sodium. Coconut aminos — which are made by fermenting sap from the coconut palm with salt — have 90 mg of sodium per teaspoon. Traditional soy sauce contains about 280 mg of sodium per teaspoon.

2. Fresh Herbs

There’s nothing quite like the earthy fragrance of fresh-picked herbs. Using fresh herbs not only enhances the flavor of whatever you’re cooking, but some herbs have also been found to have significant health benefits — especially for the heart.

Fresh herbs should be added at the end of the cooking process to avoid breaking down the delicate flavor. Herbs like fresh basil are delightful when added to cold dishes like this tomato-packed salad.

To keep herbs fresh:

Plant a kitchen garden. Even a small indoor garden with your favorites like basil, chives and thyme make for a fun — and delicious — project.

Store herbs properly. When bringing fresh herbs home from the grocery store properly to give them the longest shelf life possible. For hearty herbs like rosemary, thyme and chives, wash them then arrange them on a damp paper towel. Roll the towel up and wrap it securely in plastic wrap. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Delicate herbs like tarragon, parsley and cilantro need a bit of water to thrive. Snip the ends and place them stem-side down in a mason jar with an inch of water at the bottom. Seal the top and keep them in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Follow the same process with basil, but do not close off the top and leave the jar on the counter — like a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers.

Freeze fresh herbs. Yes, you can freeze fresh herbs so they’re ready for cooking when you need them. The process is as simple as washing and drying your fresh herbs and adding them to ice cube trays along with your liquid of choice. For soups and stews, use water or broth to freeze a delicious mix of herbs.

If you like to saute, suspend herbs in olive oil and toss the cube directly into a hot pan. How about herb butter? Soften a good quality butter and mix in herbs then freeze.

3. Dried Herbs

Fresh isn’t always best (or even possible). To infuse flavor into all your dishes, stock your pantry with dried herbs that complement your favorite foods. Unlike fresh herbs that can be tossed in at the end of the cooking process, dried herbs should be added early on to give them time to rehydrate and release all their flavor into your dish.

More tips for cooking with dried herbs:

Choose the right herb. Hearty herbs like rosemary, bay leaf, sage and oregano hold their flavor best when dried.

Bloom your herbs. Cook herbs along with spices in a bit of oil to release the flavor (and that delicious aroma).

Choose the right herb for your dish. Poultry loves earthy flavors like rosemary, thyme and sage. For fish dishes, try parsley, chives, dill and basil.

4. Spices

With the right combination of spices, you may not even miss that boring old salt. The key to getting the most out of spices when cooking is to add them at the right time. Add chili powder and cumin as the broth cooks in this chili so the kick doesn’t cook out too early.

In a sauteed dish, like this Butternut Squash Afghani Style, adding coriander, cumin and cardamom to the hot oil and allowing it to simmer for a short period of time releases the fragrance and the flavor.

Get the best flavor from your spice cabinet:

Think small. Buy spices in small amounts and get rid of those that have expired. Potency can diminish over time, so you want your spices to be as fresh as possible.

Try whole spices. When possible, buy whole spice kernels or sticks (in the case of cinnamon) and grind them yourself. Not only will you get the best flavor, you may also find toasting hearty spices like coriander seeds, cardamom and cumin before grinding them to bring out the earthiness that isn’t present in the ground varieties.

  • Store spices in a cool dry location with a consistent temperature of about 70 degrees.
  • Make your own spice blends. Find out what flavors you like together and keep your custom blend on hand.

5. Vinegar

Like salt, vinegar is a flavor enhancer in foods. It is the perfect thing to splash on at the last minute to bring out the deeper flavors you’ve cooked into your dish.

Some tips for cooking with vinegar:

Don’t go cheap. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but with vinegar, you tend to get what you pay for. Higher-quality ingredients in general ensure you’ll actually use them and vinegar is no exception.

Match your vinegar to your dish. For Asian cooking, stick with rice vinegar, balsamic is delicious drizzled atop salads and roasted vegetables and apple cider vinegar is perfect in salad dressings.

Try all the different kinds. From champagne to malt to plain old white vinegar, each has its own properties and characteristics. Do some experimentation until you find what works best for you.

Mix it up. Infuse your vinegar with herbs for a totally new flavor.

6. Citrus

Citrus is a powerful flavor enhancer and salt replacement. A 2014 study showed how dishes using reduced salt along with lemon zest and juice were deemed more flavorful than their full salt counterparts.

To put citrus use into practice:

  • Use citrus to finish chicken and fish. Instead of reaching for the salt shaker, sprinkle your protein with grated lemon zest and a squeeze of juice.
  • Add zest to dry rubs and marinades.
  • Add lime zest to cooking water or broth to pump up the flavor of soups and grains.

7. Mushrooms

Mushrooms are high in potassium and naturally low in sodium (though they do contain about 4 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams). The depth of flavor from mushrooms is so intense it has its own name — umami — which is derived from mushrooms’ high level of glutamate.

Mushroom facts to know:

  • Mushrooms are particularly good at adding depth of flavor to soups and stews, like this one with white beans and barley.
  • The larger the mushroom, the more glutamate it contains and thus the more umami flavor it has. High umami mushrooms include shiitake, portobello and white button.
  • Dried mushrooms have more umami flavor than fresh, and cooked mushrooms have more depth of flavor than raw.

Some people are put off by the texture of mushrooms. If that’s you, you can still get the umami flavor by using salt-free mushroom powder or by making mushroom broth and using it as a base in soups and sauces.

8. Pepper

Salt’s forever sidekick, pepper is sometimes a seasoning afterthought. But dig a bit deeper, and you’ll see pepper is ready to stand on its own.

You’re likely most familiar with black pepper. The black peppercorn is actually a berry that grows on the Piper nigrum vine. The cooked, dried berries are what you see in your peppermill. White peppercorns come from the same berry, but the skins are removed before being ground, giving it a milder taste.

In addition to adding flavor and heat to your food, black pepper has been shown to have a number of health benefits. To get the ultimate pepper flavor in your dishes, use whole peppercorns and grind right before adding.

Other types of pepper:

  • Pink peppercorns aren’t actually related to black and white pepper. Instead, they come from Peruvian pepper trees and pack a sweeter, hotter punch.
  • Sichuan peppercorns are the berries of the prickly ash tree (a member of the citrus family). Sichuan peppers feature prominently in five-spice powders and are hotter than other peppercorns on this list.

This is only the beginning of the culinary possibilities that await you outside the world of salt. For those living with heart failure, finding alternatives to salt-rich favorites within a heart-healthy diet can be overwhelming and sometimes discouraging. But, with some creative substitutions and the right recipes, you’ll be able to eat well and pass on the salt.