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Salt Substitutes - Are They Beneficial or Harmful?

 A diet high in sodium is a known contributor to cardiovascular problems, heart disease, kidney damage, and a number of other health issues. Unfortunately, salt is in everything, even before we take out the salt shaker. So, sooner or later, we’ll all probably hear our doctor telling us to reduce the salt in our diet. The real question is, how? One plausible solution you may come across is salt substitutes. Before you decide to buy yourself a bottle of the stuff, read this article.

What are salt substitutes?

Salt Substitutes salt shaker

Salt substitutes appear identical to regular table salt, but they swap out some or all of the sodium chloride for potassium chloride. These salt alternatives can be used in cooking and seasoning, but some people find that potassium chloride has a metallic or bitter aftertaste, so it’s best to start using it in small amounts. The bitterness is especially noticeable in homemade baked goods, so it’s best to substitute no more ⅕ of the salt in a recipe with a salt substitute.

Are salt substitutes healthier than ordinary salt?

The short answer is, salt substitutes are beneficial for some people, but they can actually be harmful to others. A major study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that using a salt substitute improves heart health and reduces the risk of stroke in seniors with a history of hypertension or a stroke. The study looked at 21,000 participants from 600 villages across China.

Participants were 60 and older - 72% survived a stroke and 88% had high blood pressure. Each participant was given 20 grams of salt substitute that contained 75% sodium chloride and 25% potassium chloride and urged to use it as regular salt. The study found a clear improvement in blood pressure management and stroke prevention compared to neighboring villages where control subjects continued to use regular salt.

Salt Substitutes woman seasoning food
However, doctors and scientists say we should take this conclusion with a grain of salt (sorry for the pun). This is because the diet of an average senior in rural China is very different from that of people living in the US and other western countries. “In rural China, most meals are cooked from scratch, so sodium intake is under the control of the food preparer. Americans consume far more pre-prepared and processed foods — and a lot of those items deliver a lot of sodium even before we pick up the salt shaker,” said Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, a cardiologist.
The majority of sodium is hiding not in the foods we prepare, but those that we purchase, such as baked goods, canned foods, potato chips, soy sauce, other condiments, etc. But processed foods are by far not the only issue that makes salt substitutes problematic.
The potassium in salt substitutes itself can actually be harmful to the kidneys and other organs if consumed in excessive amounts. These substitutes are also dangerous when combined with certain medications, such as ACE inhibitors and some diuretics, and could lead to liver and kidney damage. For these reasons, if you’re considering salt substitutes, discuss it with your doctor first.

Are salt substitutes the best way to reduce salt intake?

Salt Substitutes salt shaker tipped
The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, which is rather difficult when you take into account that a plain bagel, for example, already contains 450 mg. Still, doctors recommend reducing your salt intake without relying on salt substitutes.
Herbs, spices, and lemon juice are all excellent ways to add flavor to dishes without using salt. Many of these spices and herbs have potent anti-inflammatory properties too, so you’ll be actually improving your health when you’re using them. There’s also a good lesson we can learn from the Chinese study we mentioned earlier, and it’s homecooked meals. The majority of the sodium in your diet is from processed- and restaurant foods.
Try to cook most of the food you eat daily, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and over time, your palate will adjust to the low-sodium diet and you’ll enjoy the natural taste of foods a lot more. “Adding fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables while reducing sodium intake has been shown to be as effective as adding a drug for lowering blood pressure,” Klodas told Healthline. And the benefits, such as less bloating, decreased water retention, and the reduction of blood pressure will definitely urge you to continue your new diet too. For more tips on reducing the amount of sodium in your diet read our article - 5 Easy Tips to Reduce Sodium in Your Diet.
In summary, the effectiveness of salt substitutes is generally overrated. While they may be beneficial in some rare cases, the side effects and risks of potassium chloride far outweigh its benefits. Simple dietary changes still remain by far the most effective way of reducing one’s sodium intake.
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