From land or sea, salt is salt

Why do some recipes call for sea salt instead of regular salt? Is it healthier? What about kosher salt?

There’s very little difference, chemically speaking, between these types of salt. All are at least 97.5 percent sodium chloride and have a similar amount of sodium by weight.

Sea salt, which comes from evaporated seawater, often has a different texture than regular table salt, which is the primary reason you’ll see it recommended in some recipes. It can come coarsely ground or in flakes, offering a bit of flair when sprinkled on top of a dish. Some people say the flavor of sea salt is softer than regular salt, or that the minuscule amounts of other minerals in sea salt provide a distinct flavor, but that’s debatable.

Table salt comes from underground salt deposits. It’s normally more heavily processed than sea salt to remove other minerals, and it contains an additive to prevent clumping. Most table salt also contains iodine, which helps prevent goiter, a thyroid gland condition. Even if you go easy on salt, you’re probably getting enough iodine from the iodized salt you do use.

Kosher salt is a coarse-grain salt used to prepare kosher meats. It contains no iodine, so it’s often recommended for use in canning and pickling because iodine can cause an adverse reaction with some foods during those processes.

A teaspoon of any coarse-grain salt will actually contain less salt, and therefore less sodium, than smaller-grain salt. There simply are larger air pockets in a measure of coarse salt. That’s evident if you compare the weight of a teaspoon of coarse salt with a teaspoon of regular salt: The regular salt will be heavier because it’s more densely packed.

One teaspoon of regular table salt contains 2,325 milligrams of sodium, or about one day’s worth. But most sodium people consume isn’t from the salt shaker. In fact, many high-sodium foods don’t even taste salty. A package of flavored oatmeal can have more sodium than a bag of chips. Fresh poultry is often saturated with a high-sodium solution to tenderize the meat. Get into the habit of checking sodium content on Nutrition Facts labels.

Health professionals recommend limiting sodium to 2,300 milligrams a day, or 1,500 milligrams for people who are likely to experience health problems from high sodium. That includes anyone 51 or older, African Americans of any age, and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

For ideas on how to cut back on sodium, see the “10 Tips Nutrition Education Series” onhttp://www.choosemyplate.gov and download the “Salt and Sodium” fact sheet, or learn more athttp://www.cdc.gov/salt.

Keep physically fit at any weight

I’ve seen conflicting information about whether or not being obese is actually harmful to your health. Can you clarify?

You’re not crazy. Depending on how studies are designed, how large they are, and a number of other factors, results can seem to conflict with each other. And, since more than one-third of U.S. adults are currently classified as obese, this type of research generally gets (and deserves) a lot of attention.

Some research suggests that obesity increases the risk of disease and death no matter what. But other studies indicate that being obese isn’t necessarily predictive of negative health outcomes. One recently published study is a good example.

The study, conducted at the University of South Carolina, suggests that nearly half of the obese people who participated in the study were just as healthy, metabolically speaking, as their normal-weight counterparts, and they had no increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer or death.

The study examined 43,265 participants in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study between 1979 and 2003. Participants completed detailed questionnaires on their medical and lifestyle history, and they had a physical exam that included measurements of their height, weight and percentage of body fat, as well as metabolic measurements including blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and fasting glucose levels. They also took a treadmill test that measured their level of cardio-respiratory fitness. The participants were followed until they died or until the end of 2003.

The researchers found that 46 percent of the obese participants were metabolically healthy, and they also had a better fitness level than obese participants who had high blood pressure, high triglycerides or other metabolic measurements of concern. It appears that being fit — at least as measured on a standard treadmill test — is a better measure of health risks than what the scale says.

The take-home message? No matter what your weight, do what you can to stay or become physically fit. Take a brisk walk first thing in the morning or every evening after supper. Take an aerobics class, start swimming, or join a local gym. Make it a habit to take the stairs, even if you have to climb three or four flights, instead of taking the elevator.

Of course, if you’re not used to much physical activity, first check in with your doctor or health professional to make sure there are no underlying health conditions that you need to be aware of. But once you start, keep being active — no matter what the scale says.

Lots of options with potatoes, rice

Which is better for you, potatoes or rice?

Nutrition professionals tend to chafe when asked to categorize foods as good or bad, especially staples like potatoes and rice. The truth is, both can be part of a healthful diet.

But, of course, there are differences. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, the basics. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’sNational Nutrient Database, one medium baked potato (about 2.25 inches by 3.25 inches) with skin has 130 calories, 3 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 30 grams of carbohydrate, and it also offers about 30 percent of the Daily Value of vitamin C, 21 percent of potassium, and 15 percent of vitamin B6.

About the same amount (1 cup) of long-grain white rice weighs in with more calories (about 200), less fiber (0.6 grams) and more carbohydrate (45 grams). It’s a better source of protein (4 grams) than potatoes, and it’s a good source of manganese, with 37 percent of the Daily Value, and folate, with 23 percent.

You have a lot of choices when it comes to both rice and potatoes. For example, as a whole grain, brown rice contains valuable micronutrients and more fiber (4 grams in 1 cup) than white rice. It also has less of an effect on blood sugar. In fact, a 2010 study from Harvard’s School of Public Health found that replacing white rice with brown rice lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Potatoes also can cause blood sugar spikes, even more than white rice can. You can moderate that effect by topping your spuds with high-fat foods, such as butter, sour cream and cheese, but that also has the obvious downside of adding a lot of calories and unhealthy fats to the diet. Instead, add salsa, broccoli or other vegetables, which can have a similar stabilizing effect.

Or, try topping potatoes (or rice, for that matter) with a few spoonfuls of chili with beans. It’s not nearly as high in fat as other common toppings, and offers a wider range of nutrients and more fiber from the beans and tomatoes.

Another option is to choose sweet potatoes or yams instead of white potatoes. Sweet potatoes have loads of vitamin A and a good amount of iron in addition to other nutrients. As with white potatoes, though, watch the toppings: Loading up sweet potatoes with butter and brown sugar might be tasty, but the added fat and sugar certainly make it less healthful.

For white or sweet potatoes, try roasting them instead of baking, mashing, frying or boiling: Cut them into cubes or wedges with the skins on (skins are loaded with nutrients), coat with a small amount of olive oil and your favorite herbs and spices, and roast in a hot oven. You won’t need any additional toppings to enjoy these spuds.

To be safe, be sure cider is pasteurized

We’re having a birthday party for our 4-year-old next month. My husband wants to serve apple cider, but I remember a few years ago there was a safety concern about cider. Is it OK now?

Almost all cider and juice is now pasteurized or otherwise treated to reduce any risks. But read the label to be certain, especially because you’ll be serving the product to children. Children, the elderly and people who are otherwise ill or have weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness.

Until the 1990s, experts generally believed that apple cider’s high acidity would protect it from most contaminants. But after two foodborne illness outbreaks linked to untreated apple cider and apple juice in 1996 — one of which resulted in a fatality — the Food and Drug Administration stepped in.

Now, processors must pasteurize or otherwise treat fruit and vegetable juice to make sure it achieves a “5-log” reduction in pathogens. That means the process must reduce the number of microorganisms 100,000-fold, or a 99.999 percent reduction. That’s the same level required for objects such as food equipment and utensils to be officially “sanitized.”

On the label, look for the word “pasteurized” or for a description of another type of treatment, or for a warning statement that the cider hasn’t been treated.

Checking the label is a simple but important step, because there are circumstances when you might encounter cider or juice that hasn’t been treated. Cider and juice that is made on-site — whether at a grocery store, a health-food store, a juice bar, a farm market, an apple orchard or anywhere, really — and then sold directly to consumers does not have to be treated. But those packages do need to carry a warning label.

If an outlet offers single servings of cider or juice, inquire if it’s been treated. Since the product doesn’t have a package with a label, you can’t know for sure unless you ask.

If you have a home juicing machine, you should also follow a few precautions. Before you begin, rinse produce well under running water, scrubbing rinds with a brush. Also, make sure cutting boards, counter tops, utensils and the juicer itself are clean before you start.

Food safety experts recommend drinking homemade juice immediately. If you’re going to store it, you might consider heating it to a boil before refrigerating just to be certain any pathogens don’t have a chance to multiply to dangerous levels before you have a chance to consume the juice.