Salt substitutes can lower risk of heart disease, study finds

Experts recommend eating less salt and fewer processed foods to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease

Salt substitutes can lower the risk of heart disease, according to a new study, but experts believe Irish people should focus on eating less salt and fewer processed foods to reduce their chances of developing cardiac related illnesses.

Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. The substitute products, available in most supermarkets, have a reduced amount of sodium and include potassium, which helps to keep blood pressure down and blood vessels open.

A pooled data analysis study from the Heart Journal found that salt substitutes lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes and death. It shows that a large study in China from last year, which demonstrated these findings, could be replicated internationally.

Researchers reviewed databases looking for randomised clinical trials that reported on the effects of a salt substitute on blood pressure, cardiovascular health and early death. The research took results from 21 countries covering more than 30,000 people.

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The data showed salt substitutes lowered blood pressure in all the participants. The report said the reductions in blood pressure “seemed to be consistent” irrespective of geography, age, sex, history of high blood pressure, weight and other factors.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and high blood pressure creates a major risk for an early death. One in three Irish people have high blood pressure, but only half of those people know they have it. Salt retains water and increases the pressure on the blood vessels and puts the body under more stress.

Orna O’Brien, a dietician with the Irish Heart Foundation, welcomed the findings of the “really large, strong, reliable study”.

“It shows that something like a salt substitute which is low cost and very widely available can have a positive impact on people living with heart disease and stroke, who are looking to reduce their salt intake,” she said.

However, Ms O’Brien said that Irish people got 80 per cent of their salt from processed foods such as ready-made noodles, takeaways and other processed items. “In Ireland you are much better off focusing on dropping processed foods for more whole, unprocessed foods and upping your fruit and vegetable intake.”

Ms O’Brien said she would not want to encourage people to just replace salt they may put over their food with a salt substitute.

Cróchán O’Sullivan, a consultant cardiologist at the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork, said the findings simply showed that a reduction in salt intake resulted in fewer heart problems.

“It’s not that salt substitution per se is causing the reduction in blood pressure, it’s that they are eating less salt,” he said.

He acknowledged that more potassium in someone’s diet could help reduce blood pressure but said people needed to focus on reducing their salt intake in the first instance.