MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, says potential risks associated with potassium-based salt replacers are grossly exaggerated, and mineral salts have an important role to play in reducing salt consumption.
The UK government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) launched a review in June last year of potassium-based salt substitutes, which the Department of Health does not recommend because of concerns about kidney problems in children and the elderly. The health department also objects to such ingredients because they may hinder efforts to accustom people to a lower level of salt in foods.
According to a health department spokesperson, it is “likely to be several months / spring 2015 before we have further information or a review of our current position on the use of potassium-based salt replacers”.
However, with industry under pressure to meet ever lower salt targets, the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) also has said potassium-based replacers are an important tool for manufacturers.
MacGregor told FoodNavigator: “This is an important area where we feel there is certainly scope, particularly for instance in replacing baking powder, sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate and in meat products where there may possibly be a need to have sodium chloride to prevent Clostridium botulinum, and potassium chloride can probably be used in the same way.”
Benefits vs. risks
A health department spokesperson said SACN asked the Committee on Toxicity (COT) to assess risks associated with potassium, but although COT has completed its assessment of potential benefits, its assessment of risks is due for completion in “the New Year at the earliest” – and the SACN then has to make its final conclusions and recommendations.
“I think there needs to be some guidelines for the food industry as to how to use potassium based replacers and it is very sad that Public Health England hasn’t come up with any clear guidelines,” said MacGregor.
The health department said: “Our aim has always been for salt levels to be reduced. However, it is apparent that the use of potassium in place of sodium could enable further salt reduction progress.”
The spokesperson added that this was why it had asked the SACN to reconsider its advice.
MacGregor said: “I agree that it is better to get people to adjust to the less salty taste but one could do both and then you would have a double hit, reducing salt even further.
“…I am not so concerned with renal patients as they are well aware of the dangers of potassium - which are grossly exaggerated by many dieticians - but it would be much better to use potassium more widely. During evolution we ate 3 times the amount of potassium we now eat so I can hardly see it being dangerous. But clearly there are one or two rare situations where it may be, but most people are aware of it.”