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Add Flavor Not Salt

July 13, 2016 by Linda Popescu, MS, RD


Have you been brain washed to believe that unsalted food is tasteless? Do you have problems imagining life without your salt shaker?

When you start to cook Nutritarian-style, you realize that food doesn’t need salt to be delicious. Recipes with no added salt can be bursting with great flavor.  The key is learning how to season foods healthfully by using aromatic vegetables, fresh fruits, herbs and spices.

It’s not debatable—salt increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke as well as osteoporosis and stomach cancer. It’s also addictive. Over time, it deadens your taste buds so you need more and more just to taste it. And regardless of its color, exotic place of origin or funky infused flavor, salt is salt.

I have been part of the team at DrFuhrman.com for over 10 years, helping Dr. Fuhrman with recipe and new food product development and nutritional analysis. Initially, although I am a registered dietitian and a food scientist, I needed to learn new cooking skills and change my perspective about flavoring and essential ingredients. This has extended into my cooking style at home where now I automatically omit the salt from any recipe and the salt shaker collects dust in the closet. Even my family has forgotten it’s there. I knew we had made great strides when my daughter complained that the vegetables in the college cafeteria were so salty, they tasted like they had been cooked in ocean water.

Instead of automatically dumping a few teaspoons of salt into the pot, think of making a recipe as a process of adding layers of flavor.  For example, start with a member of the aromatic allium family such as onions and garlic, add in herbs and spices while cooking and finish with a splash of citrus or vinegar.

The Aromatic Alliums: onions, garlic, leeks, shallots, chives and scallions

Not only do these vegetables provide beneficial anticancer and antioxidant compounds, they provide wonderful flavor.  I start off my soups, stews and stir-fries by water-sautéing a combination of the aromatic alliums and possibly throwing in some carrots, celery or ginger.

Water sautéing is a key technique to learn. Just heat the pan, add a tablespoon or two of water and when hot, add your choice of aromatics and cook, allowing the pan to dry out just enough for the food to start to brown a little before you add additional water. This helps to develop the flavor in your ingredients without the addition of oil.  

Roasted garlic adds big flavor to dips, salad dressings and sauces. To roast garlic, separate the cloves, leaving the papery skins on and bake at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes or until soft.

Raw onions, shallots, scallions, chives or garlic are also perfect additions to salads, dressings and wraps. Try thinly sliced raw onion on your bean burger or drop a clove of raw garlic in the blender when you make your salad dressing or sauce.

Go Big on the Herbs and Spices

Herbs come from the leaves of a plant while spices come from the roots, bark and seeds.  Basil, cilantro, parsley and thyme are herbs while cumin, coriander, cinnamon, vanilla and cloves are spices. Don’t be afraid to use them generously in your cooking. Herbs are available fresh or dried and while dried herbs are convenient to have on hand, treat yourself to fresh herbs for a better, fresher flavor. The general rule of thumb is that one teaspoon of dried herbs is equal to one tablespoon of fresh.

Add some heat, even if just a little. I have discovered that a hint of spiciness from black pepper, cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes is sometimes just what a dish needs.  If you like it hot and spicy, dial it up with a variety of different fresh or dried chilies or chili powder.  Based on my experience developing recipes here at DrFuhrman.com, there is a wide range of preferences when it comes to spicy. One person’s hot is another person’s mild!

Stock up on some no-salt seasoning blends  to fall back on. They are a quick and convenient way to add flavor. Although not an herb or spice, unfortified nutritional yeast is also a good ingredient to keep on hand for a savory, cheesy flavor. Nutritional yeast is different from baking or brewer’s yeast, it has been deactivated, which means it cannot be used for leavening or fermentation purposes.

Finish with Citrus Ingredients and Vinegar

For the finishing touch, pretend you are a famous chef and add a splash of freshly squeezed lemon, lime or orange juice at the end of cooking to wake up the flavor of your vegetables, soups or sauces. Acidic ingredients brighten up flavor and activate similar taste receptors as salt. They are natural flavor enhancers and a great way to finish a dish. Vinegar accomplishes the same goal and there is a wide assortment of flavored vinegars that allow you to add character to your recipe without adding salt—or oil, sugar or calories.

Learning to enjoy the real, unsalted flavor of food is a rewarding process. Your taste buds gradually regain their sensitivity and you can appreciate, perhaps for the first time, a wide assortment of different and more interesting flavors. And when you taste something that once tasted normal, it will seem incredibly salty and unappealing!

TIP: Replace your saltshaker with a small dish of gremolata, a traditional Italian condiment. To make it, combine the zest of one organic lemon, with a quarter cup of chopped fresh parsley and three minced garlic cloves. It will keep in the refrigerator for a week or two.



Linda Popescu, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian with graduate degrees in Nutrition from New York University and in Food Science from Rutgers University. She works with Dr. Fuhrman on developing great-tasting Nutritarian recipes and healthful menus that put his nutrient dense, plant-rich eating style into action. Linda also develops the Dr. Fuhrman food products that make this healthful lifestyle easier and more convenient. She has been with DrFuhrman.com since 2006.


Comments (0):



07/14/2016 05:40 PM

I find that adding lemon or lime to a soup after it is cooked does help you to not need salt.


07/14/2016 08:49 PM

And no mention of potassium chloride? That's a bit disappointing.

Linda P. replies:

07/15/2016 09:49 AM

Salt substitutes that are made with potassium chloride are not as bad as regular salt. However, the goal is to eventually lose your dependency on salty flavors so your taste buds become more sensitized to the natural flavor in real foods. Potassium chloride just perpetuates the addiction to salty flavors.


07/14/2016 11:52 PM

I thought potassium chloride is no better than salt. I keep a shaker of salt free Szechwan Seasoning on the table to use when a dish is too bland. Szechwan seasoning is a mixture of sesame seeds, garlic, ginger, red pepper, brown mustard seeds, coriander, green bell pepper, lemon grass, and cilantro.

FFFLYS replies:

07/22/2016 12:24 PM

is this a blend you can buy already mixed such as in a Asian store or do you make it?


07/15/2016 08:58 AM

I heard that peper is not good for us. Is that true?

Linda P. replies:

07/15/2016 10:58 AM

Using a moderate amount of peppers and other spices to season foods is not harmful and may even provide some benefits. Avoid excessive consumption of extremely spicy foods. More research is needed to determine if this poses a health risk.


07/15/2016 09:31 AM

As a recovering saltaholic, I couldn't agree with Dr Popescu more! We grow tarragon, rosemary, and thyme and use them to flavor our dishes year round. In the summer we grow basil, then make pesto with no salt and vegan parmesan. More and more supermarkets are providing "no salt added" canned beans and tomatoes for quick and healthy dishes. They cost no more than the salt-laden varieties. Once you start using fresh herbs, and cooking salt-free, you don't miss the salt at all.


07/15/2016 11:12 AM

Thank you, thank you! I had never quite understood the distinction between herbs and spices. I agree whole heartedly about salt, and have eliminated it from my diet to control mild high BP. But I have the additional problem of also having to eliminate high oxylate foods such as black pepper, black tea, parsley, beet greens, etc from my diet due to kidney stones. How would you adjust your seasoning mix to take this into account?
This comment was last edited on 07/15/2016 11:13 AM

Linda P. replies:

07/15/2016 04:05 PM

A different seasoning blend may be a better option for you. Try combining 1 teaspoon ground celery seeds, 2 ½ teaspoons marjoram, 2 ½ teaspoons summer savory, 1 ½ teaspoons oregano, 1 ½ teaspoons dried basil and 1 teaspoon garlic powder. Substitute other favorite herbs and spices if you like. Store in an airtight container and it will keep for several months.


07/15/2016 03:43 PM

Thank you for concise informative info on eating healthy and flavorful foods. We are on the path of higher ground of quality nutrition, and can't wait to try the gremolata!


07/15/2016 07:23 PM

Thank you, I will try this mix.


07/16/2016 12:24 AM

A word of encouragement. I never put additional salt on my food as a child. As an adult I rarely cook with it unless a recipe calls for a very small amount. People often ask me how I can eat my food with nothing added for flavor. My reply. I enjoy savoring the flavors of my vegetables. Yes, they actually have flavor. As stated you become accustomed to flavors without salt. Give it a try. Little by little.


07/17/2016 07:35 PM

Though I never used a lot of added salt on my food, once my taste buds changed, I found I could really TASTE food for the first time. I have so enjoyed re-learning how to cook using all the spices and other items mentioned. Just tonight, my husband commented on how flavorful our dinner was. I love it!


07/18/2016 10:59 AM

Don't our bodies need salt to absorb water? Are you saying we do not need salt at all? I eat a nutritarian diet so the only salt I get is what I add to my food, so I do not intake an over abundance of it.

Linda P. replies:

07/18/2016 02:14 PM

Our bodies do require sodium but natural whole foods contain enough sodium to meet our needs.


07/18/2016 09:18 PM

Thank you for these articles!


07/25/2016 09:12 PM

Using chia seeds on your food gives the flavour and semblance of pepper, and a reduced need for salt. I baked some on some chicken breast strips. It was delicious.


08/09/2016 12:47 PM

Thanks for the article. Can you comment on this NYT article on the dangers of a low-salt diet? http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/05/25/a-low-salt-diet-may-be-bad-for-the-heart/?_r=0


06/03/2017 02:53 AM

My wife believes Himalayan salt is different and good for you. Can you comment on that? Thanks!

Linda P. replies:

06/05/2017 11:37 AM

No type of salt provides any significant nutritional benefit. The amounts of trace minerals that specialty salts may supply are negligible. All salts are composed of sodium chloride which is linked to high blood pressure and other health risks.


07/23/2017 10:27 PM

We don't use salt when we cook and cook mostly raw vegetables or buy the no-salt added versions of foods.  I ride a bicycle almost daily and frequently, especially this time of year, sweat a lot, and everything I read about exercising tells me that I need to replace the sodium (and other electrolytes) that I lose sweating.  So, I have reasoned that since my body requires some sodium (about 1500mg?), and I am not getting it from buying food with added sodium, that it's ok if I add a little with the shaker.  However, I can see how adding salt can prevent the taste buds from learning to appreciate the real taste of the food. 

If I quit adding any salt, do I run the risk of not having enough sodium? How do I replace the salt I lose while cycling?

Linda P. replies:

07/24/2017 10:00 AM

There is enough sodium in natural, whole foods to meet your needs, even when exercising. Also, when your body gets used to a low sodium diet, you do not lose significant amounts even when it is hot and you perspire a lot.


02/28/2021 03:46 PM

How much salt does one need?