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Alex Talks Diet: Traffic light system to help you put the brakes on too much salt + my hidden wholefoods heaven in Stortford + make your own stock from vegetable scraps

Alex Ballard, who grew up in Bishop's Stortford and works as a specialist community dietitian for the NHS in West Essex, writes a fortnightly column, Diet Talk, in the Stortford Indie about taking small steps towards a healthier lifestyle...

With the options of sea salt, rock salt, garlic salt and pink Himalayan salt, how are we supposed to know what to use when filling up our mills? Or should we even be seasoning at all?

We are continuously bombarded with conflicting and questionable advice, so it’s important to take some messages with a pinch of salt.

Salt (34746824)
Salt (34746824)

Salt takes a vital, front-seat role in aiding the trillions of cells in the human body to function, transport and communicate. With this mineral being a key accompaniment to many traditional dishes, a lot of us have developed a very salty tooth. However, as with most of life’s pleasures, moderation is key.

Many of us Brits exceed the recommended target of 6g a day (even less for children) by 33%. Consistent over-consumption can lead to fluid retention, raised blood pressure and an increased risk of both heart and kidney disease. With this goal set to decrease to 3g a day by 2025, it’s important for us to shrink our salt habits sharpish.

“But I rarely reach for the salt!” I can hear some of you say. Unfortunately, you don’t have to add salt to eat too much as 75% of what we consume is hidden in purchased foods.

Some of the main culprits include salted, processed and smoked meat and fish, sauces, stock cubes, gravy, cheese, snacks, bread products, powdered soups, ready meals and takeaways. Salt even lurks in your morning cereal!

Ditching ultra-processed foods and switching to home-made options is one of the most beneficial dietary changes for overall health. Try to use fresh, naturally occurring ingredients that have had minimal tampering, and make meals from scratch instead of from the packet or jar.

However, dishing up home-cooked grub is not always feasible, and in busy, stressful and hectic lives, processed foods may sometimes have a place. It is therefore valuable to take a peek at the food labelling (even if a magnifying glass is required).

Ignore the misleading claims, distracting colours and illegible fonts and instead head straight for the traffic light labelling. Compare products displayed on the shelves, as even similar items can have drastically varying compositions. Avoid anything with a high salt content (red) and opt for those that are much lower (green or amber).

ghgh (30871445)
ghgh (30871445)

Alternatively, flip the packet and inspect the nutritional table or list. Any item hosting more than 1.5g of salt per 100g is best to be put back. This will involve swapping to reduced-salt sauces and snacks, unsalted nuts and foods tinned in water or olive oil opposed to in brine.

When dining out, consider some salt-savvy substitutes. Rather than loading pepperoni, anchovies or extra cheese onto pizzas, scan the toppings list for vegetables and chicken. Consider tomato-based pasta sauces rather than cheesy, creamy options and pour fewer sauces and dressings onto your plate.

If you’re craving a weekend fry-up, replace the bacon, sausages and hash browns with poached eggs, grilled tomatoes, spinach and avocado. Never be afraid to ask food outlets for alternative ingredients or for them to go easy on the salt.

As most of us will meet or exceed our salt requirements from the foods we choose throughout the day, any added salt (including elaborate, gourmet options) in cooking or at the table is an unnecessary extra. Try to reduce gradually your salt intake a few grains at a time to allow your taste buds to rid their salty cravings.

Although it is done with good intentions, switching to low-salt substitutes is not advised as they are very high in potassium. Instead, experiment with alternative flavours including herbs, spices, lemon and lime juice, vinegar, ginger, garlic and chilli.

Attempt to keep those salt shakers out of sight and out of mind at the back of a kitchen cupboard.

Bishops Food Centre in South Street (34747589)
Bishops Food Centre in South Street (34747589)

Alex's local treat: Bishops Food Centre

Behind the doors of 92 South Street is a hidden world of wholefoods. The Bishops Food Centre is jam-packed with worldwide delicacies and store cupboard staples.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are delivered daily, alongside bunches of unpackaged dill, coriander, parsley and mint (ideal for adding flavour to dishes as an alternative to salt). This plastic-free produce is placed near boxes of loose walnuts and plump dates.

The shelves are graced with an array of glassed goods, including almond oil, carob and fig jams, yogurt, tahini and rose water.

Bishops Food Centre in South Street (34747590)
Bishops Food Centre in South Street (34747590)

There is also an extraordinary assortment of dried beans and pulses not typically available in mainstream supermarkets.

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday the store is filled with a sweet, sesame seed scent from the home-baked Turkish breads (pide and simit).

Whether you are seeking out polenta and pinto beans, chapatti flour and cashew nuts, or buckwheat and bulgur, Bishops Food Centre has a range of ingredients for various cuisines.

Grab a paper bag from inside and get exploring. I'm assured the tomatoes are the best in Bishop’s Stortford!

Vegetable scrap stock (34747837)
Vegetable scrap stock (34747837)

Alex's recipe for vegetable scrap stock

Cooking up home-made vegetable stock using scraps and peel helps to reduce food waste and is a cost-free substitute for high-salt supermarket options.

Collect unwanted vegetable and herb trimmings throughout the week in a large pot or Tupperware box. This can include onion and beetroot skins, carrot, leek and parsnip ends, celery leaves and bottoms, mushroom stems, pepper cores and sweet potato peel.

Avoid vegetables that will leave your stock with a lingering bitter taste; for example, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Add some extra flavours with garlic skins, herb stems, bay leaves and a handful of black peppercorns (no salt required!).

Once the saucepan is half full, fill the pot up with water and bring it to the boil. Let the stock simmer away on a low heat for an evening or roughly 4-5 hours.

When it is ready, allow it to cool and sieve the liquid into jugs, containers or bottles. Either store the stock in the fridge (for roughly 5-7 days) or freeze some for future dishes.

Put the remaining vegetable scraps in your recycled food waste bin.

Enjoy throughout the week in soups, stews, curries, casseroles, paella, pasta and more.

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