Eating healthy all the time can get tough. When you’re not craving sugar covered in syrup and then drowned in chocolate, you’re longing for a different vice: salt.
Don’t get us wrong, sodium is an essential nutrient, since it helps your body maintain a healthy balance of fluids. But chances are, you’re eating way more sodium than your body needs, according to the American Heart Association. Most Americans consume about 3,4000mg of sodium each day. The FDA standard? Less than 2,400mg per day.
And the culprit isn’t sitting in a shaker. No, it’s hidden: About 75 percent of the sodium we eat comes from processed snacks and restaurant foods, the AHA points out.
Fortunately, there’s a healthier way to get salty flavor you crave without the negative health consequences (like increased risk of stroke, stomach cancer, and kidney disease), according to research from the Institute of Food Technologists: fish sauce.
Long a staple of Vietnamese cooking, fish sauce helps preserve the salty taste and overall flavor intensity in savory dishes—like chicken broth, tomato sauce, and coconut curry—even though it has 10-25 percent less sodium than the salt you’d need to achieve the same culinary effect. In short: You need less fish sauce to get the same punch you’d get from regular old salt, according to the study, published in the Journal of Food Science.
Fish sauce, made by fermenting sea salt and anchovies in colossal vats for 8-12 months, is already a popular condiment in Southeast Asia. It adds an umami taste—that protein-rich, meaty flavor found in shellfish and cured meats—that can help chefs and manufacturers reduce sodium content in their food without resorting to bland alternatives.
“Based on our research, if one serving of soup product is 4oz with 450mg sodium, you could reduce up to 112.5mg for basic chicken soup and 72mg for classic tomato soup,” says study author See Wan Yan. A tablespoon of table salt has 6,976mg of sodium, according to the USDA, while a tablespoon of fish sauce packs 1,413mg.
Don’t freak if anchovies pucker your palate, though. “[Fish sauce] is not that potent where it’s used in drops,” Yan says. “Cooks add teaspoons and more in recipes since there’s so much flavor, not just saltiness.” And that’s the big difference. “It’s not to say that one is better than the other, when comparing fish sauce to table salt, but rather how to optimize fish sauce’s potential to reduce sodium,” Yan says.
You can also try tamari and harissa to add saltiness without adding salt. Tamari is a version of soy sauce, only with more soybeans and less grain. It’s best used for cooking, while soy sauce is best used for dipping. It contains 740mg of sodium per tablespoon. Harissa is a robust red paste made of hot peppers, spices, garlic, and olive oil. (Think of it as spicy ketchup.) It has 75mg of sodium per tablespoon.