Researchers may have identified a new tool to help people reduce the amount of salt they eat: chili peppers.
A study of 606 Chinese adults found that those who preferred spicy foods also consumed less salt, or sodium, and had lower blood pressures than those who disliked spicy foods.
The study, published in the journal Hypertension, also analyzed brain scans to compare the brain’s reaction to salty food with its reaction to capsaicin, the active component in hot peppers. Capsaicin appeared to reduce the brain’s desire for salty food, leading researchers to conclude that spicy flavors may help people eat less salt.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), excess sodium in the bloodstream draws water into the blood vessels, which increases the volume of blood in the vessels. This can raise blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
The AHA recommends that people limit salt intake to 2,300 mg per day. However, that may not be as simple as it sounds. The average American’s daily salt intake is about 3,400 mg.
“Patients frequently tell me that they eat very little salt, but what they’re saying is that they’re not adding salt from the salt shaker,” says Christopher Suhar, MD, an integrative cardiologist and director of Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. “That’s minimal. A lot of patients have misconceptions about how much salt is already in their food.”
Fast food and restaurant meals are known for their high sodium content, but your kitchen likely has its own culprits. Canned soups, frozen meals, cottage cheese, white bread and even low-sodium soy sauce are just a handful of foods that have surprisingly high amounts of sodium.
In addition, deceptive serving sizes can make you think you’re consuming less salt than you really are.
“When you look at a food label, the most important information is serving size. A can of soup can be two or more servings. A serving of chips is six chips,” says Dr. Suhar. “In order to reduce salt intake, consumers need to be educated about how to read food labels and find hidden sources of salt in their diets. Salt substitutes also can help, and this study suggests that spicy foods may be another alternative.”