Cooking lessons to show people how to use spices and herbs help cut their salt intake, say researchers.
They found teaching people how to flavour food with spices and herbs was more effective at lowering salt intake than having them do it on their own.
In a new study, 55 volunteers ate a low-sodium diet for four weeks during which time researchers provided all foods and calorie-containing drinks. Salt is the main source of sodium in food.
In the second phase, half of the volunteers participated in a 20-week behavioural intervention aimed at reducing their sodium intake to 1,500 mg (1.5gms)a day by using spices and herbs.
The other half reduced sodium on their own.
More than 60 per cent of the participants in the study had high blood pressure, almost a fifth had diabetes and they were overweight.
The researchers found in the first phase, sodium intake decreased from an average 3,450 mg a day to an average 1,656 mg a day.
In the second phase, sodium intake increased in both groups.
But those who received the behavioural intervention consumed an average 966 mg a day of sodium less than the group that didn’t receive the intervention.
Cheryl Anderson, lead author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of California San Diego, said helping people cook differently gave them control over their diet.
She said ‘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.’
Those assigned to the behavioural intervention group had cooking demonstrations and had a chance to share how they were changing traditional recipes to remove salt and include spices.
The researchers didn’t emphasise specific spices, and encouraged participants to try different things to find out what they liked most.
Prof Anderson said average salt intake in the US – and other western countries – was much higher than what is recommended for healthy living, partly due to its presence in many different manufactured food products.
She said ‘We studied the use of a behavioural intervention where people learn how to use spices and herbs and less salt in their daily lives.
‘Given the challenges of lowering salt in the American 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.’
The research was presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology & Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity & Metabolism Scientific Sessions 2014 in San Francisco.
Excess salt is a major contributor to high blood pressure, leading to heart disease and stroke.
Although UK intake has fallen in recent years, it remains above the target level of 6g a day.
At present, average consumption is 8.6g per person per day which is too high, according to campaigners.
A spokesman for Blood Pressure UK which has campaigned for salt reduction said it advised people not to add salt when cooking, and this includes things like soy sauce, curry powders and stock cubes.
He said extra flavour could be provided with herbs and spices, and from seasonings like chilli, ginger, lemon or lime juice.
At first, food without salt can taste bland, but don’t give up as it takes a few weeks for the taste buds to adjust.
He said ‘If you really can’t do without a salty favour, you could try using a small amount of low-sodium salt substitute.
‘If you have kidney problems or diabetes, check with your doctor or nurse first.’