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Watch out — that boxed rice could contain more than half your recommended daily amount of sodium.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 12/13/2007 9:15:32 AM ET 2007-12-13T14:15:32

Looking for an easy-to-prepare crowd-pleaser that you can feel good about serving to your family? Just grab a box of rice, right? Well, not always. Choose the wrong box and you could end up dishing out more than half the recommended daily amount of sodium in each portion.

While advertisements make it seem like the perfect way to simplify dinner preparation, rice sold with its own “flavor packet” is not such an easy sell nutritionally.

Boxed rice may be convenient, but these products offer little more than refined grains and lots of excess sodium. Eating a one-cup portion of rice prepared according to package directions (including the prepackaged seasonings and added margarine) can provide up to 1350 milligrams of sodium. Compare that to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines’ recommended limit of 2300 mg per day and you’re well on your way to sodium overload.

Sodium recommendations are designed to prevent or control high blood pressure and reduce risk of stomach cancer. While the guidelines are set for the general public, people who are more sensitive to the blood pressure-raising effects of sodium — namely black men and women, older adults and those already diagnosed with hypertension — are encouraged to limit sodium even further, to 1500 mg per day or less.

Seasoning — without sodium
Fortunately, making rice that is both healthful and convenient is a snap. By choosing brown rice and adding your own seasonings, you not only eliminate the extra sodium, you add plenty of additional nutrients, too.

Brown rice is the whole-grain form of rice, with more than double the dietary fiber of its white, refined counterpart. It also provides more vitamin B-6, magnesium and selenium, as well as additional phytochemicals with antioxidant properties that seem to help stave off cancer and heart disease. While traditional brown rice requires about 45 minutes of cooking time, quick-fix brown rice is now available that takes only 10 minutes to prepare.

In many boxed rice mixes, the heart of the sodium problem is clearly the flavor packet. Rice itself has no sodium, so the value listed on the label is entirely due to additional seasoning.

But in the same amount of time it takes to open a salt-loaded flavor packet, you can just as easily open a jar of dried herbs. Simply add one-fourth teaspoon of herbs for each serving of rice and enjoy a sodium-free flavor boost. Try thyme or basil for a mild flavor or, for the more adventurous palette, add a pinch of curry powder or ginger. Substituting vegetable stock or low-sodium chicken broth in place of water also adds flavor, with no more than 75 mg of sodium per cup of stock.

Fat optional
You’re also wise to consider using a tablespoon of olive oil in place of the two-plus tablespoons of margarine usually recommended on package directions. Less added fat means fewer calories, and eliminating the margarine (or butter) also decreases the sodium by about 100 mg. Alternatively, you can leave out the added fat completely if you like.

To boost nutrition even further, slip a few servings of vegetables — even fruit — into your rice dish. Shredded carrots, chopped canned tomatoes, raisins, dried apricots and pineapple all add color and nutrients.

Skipping convenience rice mixes and creating your own dish from scratch can improve the nutritional quality — and add money to your pocket, too.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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