There is just no other way to say it - Costa Ricans love their sugar and their salt! If you have sugar or salt issues, or if you just prefer to reduce your intake of these, you will really have to work at it while living (and therefore eating!) in Costa Rica.
- Most "sodas" (those little cafeteria-style restaurants found almost everywhere, and one of the best deals for a quick meal) include a "refresco" (a blended drink, usually fruit) with their "casado" or lunch special. This sounds like both a good deal and a healthy alternative to say, a coke. However! These refrescos are *loaded* with sugar! What to do? Your first line could be to ask them to make it without sugar (you can always stir in a substitute if needed). This works for restaurants that make them per order, but most sodas have a series of dispensers with pre-made drinks. If you get past this, then the next problem is that even when made to order, many restaurants use a "pulp" instead of the fresh fruit. And, guess what! Yep, the sugar is already added to the pulp! You can still cut your sugar consumption if you ask for no *added* sugar, since more sugar is often added to the sugary pulp. When all else fails, we either get plain tap water or spring for the added diet coke or, if we're really lucky, a diet ginger ale (pretty much the only diet sodas you will find). Well, of course, beer is also a nice option!
- Iced Tea, or "Te Frio" is popular, and proudly announced as "natural." It is naturally sweetened with sugar...
- Some of the ground coffee you buy in the grocery stores is pre-sweetened. This seems a bit strange to some of us, but can be seen as a convenience to those who always add sugar to their coffee. The thing to do to avoid this circumstance is to (naturally) read the packaging, and avoid the ones that include "azúcar." If you go out for coffee, you can ask for it "sin azúcar," but you may still end up with sugar in your coffee (they just won't add sugar to your cup).
- There are quite a few options for sugar substitutes available. Splenda is in AutoMercado and some other grocery stores, and also in many farmacias (but considerably more expensive there). Stevia comes as either as a plant, or in liquid or powdered form. Grocery stores carry Sweet-n-Low, and several Costa Rican brands of sweetener. I have yet to see the coffee creamers without sugar, so it's best to stick with milk. (speaking of milk, you *can* get powdered WHOLE milk here - it's wonderful in coffee, especially if you like very strong coffee with milk)
- On the topic of sugars in general, High Fructose Corn Syrup is making headway in Costa Rica. Reading ingredients lists is crucial here if you want to avoid this as well. It is especially prevalent in low-fat salad dressings. Unfortunately, I didn't write down the exact wording for the ingredient (fortunately, I did not buy the product, but that means I can't just go look for the words) - but look for words like "jarabe or sirope de maiz, alto en fructosa"
- Most desserts here are very sweet. It's almost as though the flavor of the dessert is "sugar" with a tinge of something else. Even the brownies are generally not very chocolate-y. If you like strongly-flavored desserts, you will likely first be frustrated, then find that you just don't eat very much dessert. The one flavor that is fairly strong is dulce de leche - caramelized milk, with a *lot* of sugar. (nothing to do with sugar, but an important note - most pastries and cakes here are *very* dry).
- Of course, the best way to avoid salt is to cook for yourself. But, if you're like me, once in a while you get a little tired of constantly experimenting with the exotic food combinations that are possible here :-). So, *the* key phrase to know when ordering at a restaurant is "sin sal" (without salt). This won't work in a soda, where the food is pre-cooked, but is nearly essential when ordering eggs. I will say that I usually cook with no added salt at all, and the soda food is usually not noticeably salty. But if you must avoid salt, then visit these places sparingly.
- While you can find all sorts of cheeses in the up-scale grocery stores, we get most of our "daily" cheese from ferias, sidewalk stalls, or central markets. These generally come in 4 or 5 types, and all but one are salty. The "Turrialba" (or sometimes just "tierno") is a fresh cheese that is low salt and low fat (but always confirm this, even with your usual guy). (update)
- Amazingly, french fries are one of the few foods here that are not salted nearly enough! Fortunately, you can always add this :-).