Where Did that Salt Come From? My Work as a Nutrition Detective

When I started working at Project Angel Heart, I knew the kitchen was doing a great job of tailoring our meals, making them delicious, and getting our clients the food they need every week. I also knew we receive and cook a LOT of food, so I would be doing some nutrition detective work to ensure every item we receive is what it appears to be.

Interesting ingredients can turn up in unexpected places. For example—have you looked at your jar of peanut butter’s ingredient list to make sure it doesn’t contain dangerous-to-your-heart partially hydrogenated vegetable oil? Or picked up a bag of frozen berries at the grocery store, turned it over, and found that it is full of added sugar? This is a pretty common problem with packaged foods. If you do your own ingredient detective work at the grocery store, you can usually find products without unwanted added ingredients like trans-fat, added sugars, or extra salt. The best place to check is the back of the package—look at the ingredients list for anything other than what you are buying. For example, if you pick up a bag of frozen peas the ingredients list should simply read:

Ingredients: peas

NOT

Ingredients: peas and salt

Many frozen items have salt added for flavor or, interestingly enough, to keep them from clumping together as they are frozen. This is often the case with vegetables like green beans and carrots, or even with chicken breast and fish filets.

As I began my detective work at Project Angel Heart and starrted browsing through ingredients, I came across our swai filets (swai is a flaky, white fish). I double checked the nutrition information and discovered the sodium was higher than I’d like it to be! Turns out that’s because the filets had been frozen with additional salt to protect flavor, texture, and keep the filets from sticking together and freezing into a large block. The hunt was on for a lower sodium alternative!3.16.17 Rose Medical

Chef Brandon takes a lot of care to ensure our ingredients are fresh and minimally processed, and he partners with great vendors to maintain the quality of our food. He contacted our friends at Seattle Fish Co. to find a fish filet without added salt so that we could lower the sodium content of our fish meals, making them even more appropriate for folks living with heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney disease. Chef Brandon worked closely with Seattle Fish to identify a fish that was not only sodium-free, but also sustainably sourced and affordable. They landed on tilapia.  

One of the many perks of working at Project Angel Heart is getting to taste new recipes and ingredients. The chefs seasoned, baked, and served tilapia for a special staff lunch so that they could get a sense of how quickly the fish cooks, how much the filets weigh after baking, etc., and we could provide feedback on texture and flavor. The overwhelming consensus…delicious! Many of us liked the tilapia better than the swai we had been using—even with significantly less salt. Both fish are relatively similar when it comes to their nutrition content, but we found the tilapia was flakier and didn’t dry out in the oven. With its lower sodium content, that made it a winner! Now, tilapia is a regular lean protein source in our weekly meals.


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Meghan Perkins is Project Angel Heart’s registered dietitian. After a semester studying baking and pastry arts at culinary school, Meghan quickly found her passion for clinical nutrition and transferred to the University of Northern Colorado to earn her bachelor’s degree in dietetics. Meghan has worked in clinical and private practice settings, educating patients about how their food choices impact their health with an emphasis on CKD, diabetes, heart disease, celiac disease, and weight management. In her free time, Meghan enjoys exploring Denver by bike with her husband, trying new coffee and tea shops, hiking in Crested Butte, and relaxing with her dog Barney.