Research presented at an American Heart Association meeting shows that a behavioral intervention in adults encouraging use of herbs and spices – instead of salt – on food results in a decrease in sodium consumption, compared with adults who tried reducing sodium on their own.

Reducing salt intake is particularly important for individuals with high blood pressure; a high-sodium diet is linked with this condition, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), sodium increases blood pressure in some people by holding excess fluid in the body, thereby placing an extra burden on the heart. In our diet, salt is the main source of sodium, so limiting it can help to reduce cardiovascular risks.

“Salt is abundant in the food supply and the average sodium level for Americans is very high – much higher than what is recommended for health living,” says Cheryl A. M. Anderson, lead study author and associate professor at the University of California San Diego.

To investigate effective ways of encouraging individuals to reduce sodium intake, researchers conducted a study with two phases:

  • Phase 1: 55 participants ate a low-sodium diet for 4 weeks. During this time, the researchers provided all food and drink for the volunteers.
  • Phase 2: half of the study participants enrolled in a 20-week behavioral intervention, which attempted to reduce sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day by substituting salt with spices and herbs. The other half were on their own to attempt a sodium reduction.

The team notes that over 60% of the study participants had high blood pressure, while 18% had diabetes and were overweight.

The intervention group received cooking demonstrations and shared how they were changing typical recipes to remove salt and add spices. Though the researchers did not indicate specific spices the participants should use, they encouraged them to try different things in order to see what they liked best.

Fast facts about sodium

After following the low-sodium diet for 4 weeks in the first phase, sodium intake in the participants decreased from an average of 3,450 mg/day to an average of 1,656 mg/day.

Although overall sodium intake increased from the first phase, in the second phase, the group that received the behavioral intervention consumed around 966 mg/day of sodium less than the group that did not receive the intervention.

“People in the intervention group learned problem-solving strategies, use of herbs and spices in recipes, how culture influences spice choices, how to monitor diet, overcoming the barriers to making dietary changes, how to choose and order foods when eating out and how to make low-sodium intake permanent,” explains Anderson.

Their results show that teaching individuals how to flavor food using spices and herbs, as opposed to salt, can actually result in a lower sodium intake than if they were to try to reduce intake on their own.

Speaking with Medical News Today, Anderson described some of the spice combinations taught to the participants:

Some of the approaches we used in preparing those foods included: 1) creating a rub made from olive oil, coffee extract, cherry extract, smoked paprika and smokehouse pepper; 2) spreading olive oil flavored with garlic powder on unsalted bread before making grilled cheese; and 3) using a marinade of lime juice, black pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika, onion powder and honey.”

Anderson says that given the challenges involved with lowering salt in the diet, “we need a public health approach aimed at making it possible for consumers to adhere to an eating pattern with less salt. This intervention using education and tasty alternatives to sodium could be one solution.”

In 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the American Journal of Hypertension, which suggested sodium intake is controlled by networks in the brain, not by the salt we consume.