Heart Health

08 November 2017

Want to avoid salt? Turn up the spice

Chinese researchers found that the intake of spicy foods significantly reduced individuals' daily salt intake.

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Reducing the amount of salt we eat is one of the quickest ways to lower blood pressure. It is quite simple to add less salt to our food, but avoiding the hidden salt in especially fast food is not so easy. 

There may however be another way to reduce your desire for salt. If your taste buds lean toward spicy, you might be doing your heart a favour, new research suggests.

Spicy foods may increase salt sensitivity, thereby dampening the desire to consume heart-harming salty food, researchers in China say.

Benefits of spicy foods

"High salt intake increases blood pressure and contributes to cardiovascular disease," said study author Dr Zhiming Zhu. "Thus, reducing salt intake is very important for health.

"We find that the enjoyment of spicy foods significantly reduced individual salt preference, daily salt intake and blood pressure," he added.

Zhu is director of Daping Hospital's Center for Hypertension and Metabolic Diseases at Third Military Medical University in Chongqing.

The research team conducted a mouse study alongside a human trial of more than 600 Chinese adults. Both correlated blood pressure levels with intake of spicy and salty dishes.

The findings were released online in the journal Hypertension.

Foods like chili that dial up the heat essentially change the way the brain interprets salt, or sodium, intake, explained Zhu. As spice consumption goes up, the result is a notably reduced craving for salt, according to his study.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified salt reduction as the "key dietary target" in a push to cut the risk of dying from non-communicable illnesses by 2025.

No more than a teaspoon of salt

Zhu and his associates pointed out that people in most of the world routinely take in far more than the WHO's recommended limit of 5 grams of dietary salt a day.

According to a previous Health24 article, South African consumers add on average four grams of salt to food at home, which alone nearly meets the World Health Organisation’s maximum limit of five grams or one teaspoon per day. This is not taking into account the hidden sources of salt from other foods like bread and processed meats. 

The one thing that fast foods, whether it be chips, hamburgers or fried chicken have in common, is loads of salt.

To help the public evaluate their salt intake, Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) and Unilever South Africa have introduced a first in SA – a digital salt calculator.

Promising behavioural intervention

For the new study, the researchers assessed participants' preferences for salty and spicy flavours, and linked those tendencies to blood pressure levels.

The biggest consumers of spicy food were found to consume about 2.5 fewer grams of salt daily, compared to those with the blandest palates.

The spice lovers also had systolic (upper) and diastolic (bottom) blood pressure levels that were 8mm Hg and 5mm Hg lower, respectively, on average, the findings showed.

According to Zhu, the study provides "insights for the enjoyment of spicy flavour as a promising behavioural intervention for reducing high salt intake and blood pressure".

Further studies needed

But another doctor said the heart benefits of a spicy diet remain to be seen.

Dr Gregg Fonarow is co-director of preventative cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He said high blood pressure is a leading contributor to heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and kidney failure.

However, "further studies are needed to determine if increased consumption of spicy food would have a favorable impact on health," Fonarow said.

Image credit: iStock