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Slashing the salt

At the University of Buffalo, CDC funding is steering students toward lower salt diets.

Most college students don’t give much thought to their sodium consumption. But at New York’s University of Buffalo, that could soon change.

UB’s Campus Dining and Shops has partnered with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County to help students cut back on salt. “The university setting doesn’t have any restrictions on sodium or any other nutrition standards,” says Cornell Cooperative Extension registered dietician Kaitlyn Summers. “So it was something we could look at, especially because students are starting to make their own decisions about food.”

Consuming too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. And while high blood pressure is more likely to affect older adults, steering young people toward salt-smart choices now could help them avoid health problems later on.  

UB and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s partnership came about as the result of a five-year, $1.9 million grant awarded to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) from the Centers for Disease Control’s Sodium Reduction in Communities Program. Grantees are tasked with implementing and evaluating community-based strategies for reducing sodium consumption at local organizations like universities, early childhood centers and senior homes. For NYSDOH, that meant working through Cornell Cooperative Extension to spearhead sodium reduction for populations in the Buffalo-Niagara area.

To slash salt intake at the University of Buffalo, Summers joined forced with UB registered dietician Lori Bendersky this past spring. The two started by weeding out high-sodium Grab ‘n Go items, which are made in the central commissary distributed across campus. “We thought it would affect the majority of dining locations,” Bendersky says.

Using the nutritional analysis program Foodservice Suite, they analyzed the sodium content in different foods to figure out what foods needed to be tweaked or replaced. They learned that one popular snack—hummus cups with everything-flavored pretzel thins—was loaded with salt. But just by switching from the everything flavor to the traditional flavor, they were able to cut the sodium content by 45 percent.

Switching to a lower salt deli turkey was another big move. Sourcing a suitable replacement for the old, sodium-laden version wasn’t easy, though. “We have to source a specific type of log that we can slice in-house on our machine, that we could purchase on a weekly basis, from a brand that could meet our high volume on campus,” Summers said. (The school has more than 46,000 students.) But all that searching paid off. The option they finally found was 42 percent lower in sodium than the old deli turkey. “Deli turkey is one of our largest volume items, so it’s really going to make a big impact,” says Executive Chef Neal Plazio.

With the help of Plazio, Summers and Bendersky are introducing new low-sodium menu items that are made in-house, too. They used a portion of the grant money to purchase a spiralizer to make veggie noodles for low-sodium salads, like the spiralized zucchini caprese salad. “It’s about introducing more vegetables and less processed ingredients,” Bendersky says. The team also bought a meat tumbler for marinating in big batches. “Instead of adding premade seasonings, we can customize our seasonings and marinades to make them with less salt,” she adds. They’re also finding ways to make small but meaningful changes to existing recipes. For instance, reducing the quantity of cheese in pasta dishes, or bumping up the veggies and using less dressing in salads.

 The changes initially happened under the radar. But now, Summers and Bendersky are starting to get the word out. In addition to promoting the new, low-sodium items, the duo is focusing their efforts on education. They recently set up poster boards in the center of campus that list common sources of sodium, and plan to share strategies for label reading at the grocery store as well as making low-sodium choices when cooking at home and ordering at restaurants. “We also have a few test tubes on display showing how much salt is in certain products,” Summers says.

With four years left in their grant, Summers and Bendersky still have much more that they hope to accomplish. “We have a lot of recipes, so we wanted to start small and continue to add on,” Bendersky says. But the duo is already on the right path. At a recent tasting, students who sampled the new lower sodium offerings, including the deli turkey, didn’t even notice a difference in taste. Faculty and staff have expressed enthusiasm for the initiative, too. “A lot of people think low-sodium means no flavor,” Bendersky says. “We’re showing that isn’t true.”

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