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Salt Substitutes: A Healthy Alternative to the Real Thing?

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Woman sprinkling salt on an egg cooking in a frying pan.

Despite the well-established link between excessive salt consumption and high blood pressure, many people love their salt. Cutting down on salt – aka sodium chloride or sodium – can be tricky, considering the mineral is added to so many of the foods at the grocery store and at restaurants.

Salt substitutes have been around for decades. But are they a healthy alternative to the real thing?

Why Should You Limit Salt?

High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects almost half of all adults in the U.S. Often called the “silent killer,” hypertension puts people at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, heart failure and stroke.

One of the major contributors to hypertension in adults is excess dietary sodium. An essential nutrient, sodium is needed in small amounts to maintain a healthy balance of fluids, and to help muscles and nerves function normally. However, too much sodium causes fluid buildup in the blood vessels, forcing the heart to work harder to pump more blood throughout the body and raising blood pressure in the process.

In the U.S., high levels of sodium are added to many processed, packaged, prepared and restaurant foods. In fact, more than 75 percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from these types of foods and not the salt shaker.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, and that 1,500 milligrams a day is an even better goal. The average adult consumes more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day – well beyond the recommended limit.

What Are Salt Substitutes?

Most salt substitutes swap out sodium entirely or partly for potassium chloride, a naturally occurring salt-like compound that tastes similar to sodium. For many people, potassium chloride and sodium taste similar enough that the switch is fairly easy. However, for some, potassium chloride has a bitter and/or metallic taste, especially when used in larger amounts.

For people who don’t like pure potassium chloride-based salt substitutes, “lite” salt products contain blends of sodium chloride and potassium chloride. Often labeled as “low-sodium” products, these salt alternatives have a more traditional salt taste but contain less sodium than conventional table salt.

But Are They Good for You?

Potassium chloride contains potassium, which is a mineral that can help decrease blood pressure. As a result, the combination of reducing sodium while increasing supplemental potassium can make salt substitutes a healthy alternative for many people.

However, some people should avoid the extra potassium found in salt substitutes. Salt substitutes can raise blood potassium levels to dangerous levels in people with conditions such as kidney disease, heart disease, liver disease and diabetes. Also, salt substitutes may elevate a person’s blood potassium to unhealthy levels if they’re taking certain blood pressure-lowering medications, including angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and potassium-sparing diuretics. You should check with your doctor or healthcare team if you’re thinking about using salt substitutes.

Other Healthy Alternatives to Salt

Reducing your salt intake does not mean you have to deprive your taste buds of the enjoyment of flavorful food. Nutritionists and dietitians often recommend that people looking to reduce their sodium try cooking with different herbs, spices and seasonings. Some flavorful salt substitutes to experiment with in your cooking are:

  • Garlic
  • Lemon juice or zest
  • Ground black pepper
  • Dried onion or onion powder
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Balsamic, apple cider and red wine vinegars
  • Paprika
  • Truffle oil
  • Ginger
  • Various herbs and spices, including rosemary, coriander, dill, sage, tarragon and cinnamon
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