5 Tasty Toppers to Reach for Instead of the Salt Shaker

The wrong topping can undermine the healthiest intentions, like bacon bits (real or fake) showered over a fresh salad, or a salt blanket on grilled salmon. But who wants to sacrifice the seasonings and flavors that add so much enjoyment to food? You don't have to.

Healthy "sprinkles" -- a mix of herbs, spices, seeds, and seaweeds -- add a burst of flavor while lending a nutritional boost to meals. Used regularly, even a few dashes on food can add crucial antioxidants and minerals to your diet, notes herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.

Take "zahtar," a traditional Middle Eastern mix (shown on next page). It makes a healthy stand-in for salt, and mixed with olive oil, a sublime dip for pita bread. Other blends combine nutrient-rich herbs to create a welcome enhancement to salads and vinaigrettes.

Our search for tasty, good-for-you toppings went beyond salt and pepper -- and memories of Molly McButter or Mom's hippie popcorn with nutritional yeast. Here are four of our favorites, plus one versatile, do-it-yourself recipe.

Related: 35 Pantry Staples for Healthy Eating

Maine Coast Sea Seasonings

Organic Dulse Granules With Garlic
Fine flakes of dulse (a red seaweed) and garlic make up this savory, slightly salty topping. Sea vegetables like dulse are high in calcium and trace minerals. "Any chance you have to get more seaweed into your body, take it," says Gladstar. Try this mix on brown rice and lentils, in stir-fries, or in miso soup. Available in natural-foods stores or at seaveg.com.

Blessed Botanicals

Salt Of The Earth
This blend combines tarragon, rosemary, sage, and many other culinary herbs with medicinal plants like nettles, rooibos, and astragalus (shown on bottom right in photo below). Onion and garlic complete the picture. "Nettle is a super food," says Gladstar. "It's rich in iron, calcium, and vitamin A." Rooibos and garlic have antioxidant properties, and, used regularly, astragalus enhances immunity. Use this blend on Mediterranean dishes and in red-wine vinaigrettes. Available at blessedbotanicals.com.

Eden Foods

Eden Shake
Black and tan sesame seeds, pickled red shiso leaf, and nori seaweed make for a toasty, nutty flavor with hints of tartness (shown on top left of picture below). The blend serves up nutrients, too. "Sesame seeds are a source of good fats," says Joan Pleuss, a clinical research dietician with the Medical College of Wisconsin. A teaspoon of Eden Shake provides 2 grams of fiber, as much as a slice of many whole-grain breads. Try it on fish, brown rice, or in a salad dressed with soy sauce or rice wine vinegar. Available in natural-foods stores or at edenfoods.com.

Zamouri Spices

In this Middle Eastern blend, sumac lends a tart, almost lemony essence, while thyme and sesame seeds add an earthy flavor. Although zahtar has no salt, the sumac's mouthwatering, flavor-enhancing quality makes an excellent substitute. Traditionally, zahtar is sprinkled on everything from fish to falafel or mixed with olive oil and spread on pita bread. Also try it on lamb, chickpeas, or a salad of grilled vegetables and feta cheese. Available at zamourispices.com..

Related: 25 New Ways to Eat Avocados

DIY Sprinkles

This variation of dukkah (on bottom right of photo), a traditional North African mix of toasted spices and coarsely ground nuts, makes a delicious topping for rice, grilled fish, or roasted vegetables like cauliflower or zucchini. Or simply dip crusty French bread or pita in olive oil and then dukkah.

1/2 cup almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
3 tablespoons raw sesame seeds
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grind all the ingredients in a food processor in five-second intervals until the spices are blended and the almonds are crushed (but not so much that they become a paste). Spread the mixture on a flat baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 8 minutes. Watch carefully so it doesn't burn.

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Lets take this one step further and actually grind our own spices.