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Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth

Published January 2015

How we tested

Many home cooks opt for low-sodium broth for health reasons. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines low-sodium foods as containing no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per 1-cup serving. We selected nine vegetable broths that qualified, with sodium levels ranging from 65 milligrams to 140 milligrams per cup. While some were specifically labeled low sodium, others were called “no salt added” or “unsalted”; both terms mean that no salt was added during processing. (Some of these products can contain quite a bit of naturally occurring sodium, so it’s always a good idea to double-check the nutrition label.) After several initial testing rounds where we chose a single contestant from each brand that makes more than one low-sodium offering, we had five finalists, including two products sold as “vegetarian no-chicken” broths (meatless broths intended to mimic chicken broth). We tasted each broth plain, in vegetable soup, and in Parmesan risotto, rating each on flavor, saltiness, any off-flavors, and overall appeal.

Most of the broths were very unpopular with tasters, earning comparisons to “rotting compost,” “bitter onion tea,” and “sour, boiled tennis shoes.” Salt is a flavor enhancer and can help mask naturally bitter flavors that can be prominent when concentrated in vegetable broths, but these low-sodium broths lacked that advantage. In fact, we could recommend only one—and our favorite was actually one of the broths that mimic chicken broth. Wary tasters found it “surprisingly good” in soup and risotto. With 130 milligrams of sodium per cup, it hovered near the high end of the allowable range for a low-sodium product.

Notably, both our winner and the only other low-sodium broth we can recommend (albeit with reservations) were the only broths that contain yeast extract. Derived from the cells of fresh yeast, this substance is full of glutamates and nucleotides, which boost savory umami flavor. It’s also a particularly important ingredient for manufacturers of low-sodium products: It enhances the perception of saltiness without any increase in actual salt. Besides yeast extract, our winner also contained ingredients that lent complexity and balance: mace, as well as garlic, chicory, and cane juice. We found that this broth also had a more unctuous body, similar to what you’d associate with a rich chicken or beef stock, which comes from the addition of palm oil and cornstarch.

Convenient, compact, and shelf-stable, our winner is worth keeping in the pantry for the times you need a low-sodium option.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*