Saturday, June 1, 2013

Balkan Cevapcici vs. American Burger & Fries: A Sodium Throwdown

Low-sodium cevapcici feast


Big Mac (source: Wikipedia)  

A hamburger on a bun, the all-American fast food?  Or how about the Balkan contender, cevapcici with flatbread?  What should you choose, if you are watching your sodium intake?

The raw materials are the same.  Ground meat and white flour.  Both are relatively inoffensive, salt-wise.

Plain ground meat (whatever the source) does have naturally occurring sodium, but not much: 60-75 mg in a quarter pound, before cooking.  Whatever the problems with meat consumption (and there are many), salt is not one of them.    

Flour has negligible sodium. But bread is usually made with added salt, so it can add up. The typical hamburger bun or a medium pita both contain 200+ mg of sodium.  The count drops to almost 0, if you can find commercially made salt-free pita, or if you follow my salt-free lepinja recipe.  

In theory, a simple meal of grilled meat and plain bread doesn't have to be salt-laden.  But the reality is different. 

First, a reminder: The recommended daily sodium limits are no more than 2300 mg a day. Most adults should aim for 1500 mg.  To be considered low sodium, a meal should be under 450 mg.

Nutritional profiles for fast foods are easy to find.  McDonald's is particularly obliging. They spell it all out here.  

It is pretty shocking.

A McDonald's Big Mac contains 970 mg of sodium.  A large order of fries is 350 mg.  That is practically your entire daily salt quota in a single meal.  What if you skip the fries and have a small side salad? That's just 10 mg of sodium.  Unless you add a packet of low calorie balsamic vinaigrette dressing, which adds an astonishing 470 mg of sodium.

Considering a Big Mac alternative?  There are 1490 mg of sodium in a chicken-bacon wrap or in a bacon, egg and cheese bagel. (Please note: McDonald's is no worse than most other popular fast food chains.  If nothing else, they are transparent.)

So where does all the sodium sneak in?

Salt is often added to the ground meat mixture before cooking, whether the end product is a burger or cevapcici.  When you do the cooking yourself, it is easy enough to leave it out.  And be sure to skip the baking soda, if you are aiming for low sodium cevapcici.

The real difference between the American and the Balkan fast food meal?  It's in the add-ons.   The accompaniments and the side dishes.

Burger and Fries (source: Wikipedia)

What goes with cevapcici, besides flatbread?  The little sausages are traditionally served with ajvar, a red pepper relish, either homemade or the commercial variety.  Along with that, there is kajmak, a sort of clotted cream that is hard to find in the United States. Labne or Greek yogurt make good substitutes.  Grilled onions and peppers, along with tart raw vegetable salads, will often round out the meal.  

But consider the American hamburger.  It  arrives with a double helping of starch, a bun and salty French fries.  Then there are the high sodium garnishes: a slice of processed cheese, dill pickle slices, catsup, and perhaps other "special sauces."  If there is coleslaw or a green salad, it is usually saturated with a high sodium dressing.  

The Balkan meal wins, hands down.  It is lower in sodium.  Probably lower in fat and calories.  More flavorful.  And it is real food!

To inspire you, below are some sodium numbers, with the preferred choices in bold.

Na Zdravje!  To your health! 


Sodium Counts for Burger and Cevapcici Accompaniments

1 oz slice of American (processed) cheese   396 mg       
1/4 cup Greek yogurt                                   31 mg
1/4 cup kajmak (clotted cream)                   48 mg    

McDonald's Special Sauce                           unknown (but high)
1 T. catsup                                                    150 mg
1 T. ajvar (red pepper relish)                      50 mg    

l hamburger bun                                           200+ mg
1 medium pita                                               200+ mg  
1 salt-free pita                                                 0
1 medium dill pickle                                     560 mg
1 whole cucumber                                       6 mg

McDonald's fries, medium                            270 mg 
McDonald's fries, medium, no salt                  55 mg


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