Researchers have found a sodium alternative that might be worth one’s salt.

Replacing salt with lemon juice or zest intensifies the sodium flavor, experts say, thus decreasing the salt necessary in a dish. In a study conducted this spring by Sunkist Growers, a citrus marketing cooperative, researchers found that substituting lemon juice and zest in dishes reduces the quantity of salt needed by as much as 75 percent.

Researchers conducted the taste tests on soups, salads, meats, seafood, vegetables, and starches, substituting lemon juice, lemon zest, or a combination of the two. They gradually replaced salt content, perhaps lowering a recipe that called for 50 grams of sodium to 40 grams and replacing the excess with lemon elements, to understand how tasters—industry professionals with a keen sense of taste—reacted. Best applications for the salt swap were proteins such as beef, in which the lemon zest acted as a rub.

“It’s long been known that you can actually reduce the salt content of the meal by introducing some lemon, because the lemon is like a flavor enhancer,” says Master Chef Karl Guggenmos, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University and also a consultant on the project. “It intensifies the taste of salt; that’s what people love.”

Chef Guggenmos says this study should serve as a precursor that encourages the industry to make a deeper dive into healthier alternatives to salt, and even sugar. “On average, you can probably cut salt or sodium by half and still get a flavor that’s acceptable to a group,” he explains. “Longer studies will have to be done—with which foods is this most effective?— but that’s very exciting.”

Feature, Health & Nutrition