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Increasing ‘good’ salt could improve heart health

By Nathan Gray , 15-Sep-2010
Last updated the 15-Sep-2010 at 12:48 GMT

Raising the levels of ‘good’ potassium salts in foods could reduce heart disease risk by up to 11 per cent, according to new research.

The research letter, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, suggests by increasing potassium intake, populations could see up to a five percent reduction in people with high blood pressure.

“Small reductions in blood pressure (BP) on a population level could have a substantial impact on cardiovascular disease risk,” wrote the researchers, led by Dr Geleijnse, from Division of Human Nutrition, Wageningen University, and Unilever R&D.

“This is especially relevant considering that the majority of the population has suboptimal BP levels,” they added.

Reducing sodium

Reducing sodium levels is a “clearly established lifestyle change” that shows the potential to improve the health of the public, said the researchers.

“Industry is working on reducing sodium levels. There are several ways to do that, one of them is to replace sodium with something like potassium chloride, or other mineral salts,” said Dr Gerda Feunekes, Global Director Nutrition Savoury at Unilever.

Potassium chloride is seen as a potential candidate for salt replacement because it tastes as ‘salty’ as sodium chloride, and is not connected to its associated health problems.

In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that increased potassium intake could lower blood pressure (BP).

Potassium benefits

The authors reviewed population data on potassium intakes, estimating the potential impact of increased potassium intake on population blood pressure.

The authors suggested that increasing potassium intakes in populations to recommended levels could reduce BP in Western countries by up to 3.2 mm Hg.

They added that such a reduction could reduce the risk of stroke mortality by between eight and 15 percent, and the risk of heart disease mortality between 6 and 11 percent.

Raised potassium intakes would also increase the percentage of people in the optimal systolic blood pressure category by approximately 2 percent, and decrease the percentage of people with high levels of systolic BP by between 2 and 5 percent.

“It’s good that one of the minerals that can be used to replace sodium has beneficial effects in that it lowers blood pressure” said Dr. Feunekes.

Reduced risk

The research letter was welcomed by Katharine Jenner, nutritionist and campaign manager for salt reduction campaigners, the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH). Jenner told FoodNavigator: “An increase in potassium intake, in addition to a decrease in sodium intake, is likely to have a positive effect on lowering blood pressure and therefore reducing our risk of having a stroke, a heart attack or heart failure,” she said.

The scale of such a reduction was reported to be similar what that of lowering sodium intake and “highlights the importance of dietary strategies focusing on both reducing sodium intake and increasing potassium intake,” according to the researchers.

“Food companies can help by promoting the availability of healthier foods and also by improving the type and content of minerals in their products,” stated the authors.

Renal problems

However, there is concern that a shift towards using potassium in foods could cause unintentional damage to seriously ill kidney dialysis patients, who must avoid eating too much potassium and sodium.

“In public health terms, there are benefits of potassium for the population. It is good for blood pressure, and prevention of CVD, but in people with existing [renal] problems then potassium can be dangerous,” said Dr. Feunekes.

“For the benefit of patients with renal diseases, industry is labelling clearly if potassium salt is used.” she added.

Source: Archives of Internal Medicine
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2010.284
“Suboptimal Potassium Intake and Potential Impact on Population Blood Pressure”
Authors: L.A.J. van Mierlo, A. Greyling, P.L. Zock, F.J. Kok, J.M. Geleijnse

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