Reducing our sodium intake is a goal the Federal Drug Administration is working on — sort of. Last year, the agency asked food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce sodium in certain processed foods and restaurant dishes over the next 10 years. That's not a fast turnaround, but nothing is stopping consumers from doing something about it.
Lowering your sodium intake can help to prevent health issues like high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney disease. A new study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension suggests there's a way to decrease sodium intake while keeping flavor in your food: add more spice.
The short version of their findings is this: Capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat, can also make a food seem more salty because it enhance the perception of saltiness. So a dash of hot sauce can reduce the need for a dash of salt; it could even make your brain think you're consuming more salt than you are.
Researchers studied 606 Chinese adults and linked their preferences for salty and spicy flavors to their blood pressure. Those who preferred spicy foods consumed less salt and had lower blood pressure, on average "8 mm Hg lower systolic (upper) and 5mm Hg lower diastolic (bottom) blood pressure numbers."
They also found that the part of the brain that's stimulated by salt — the insula and orbitofrontal cortex — is also stimulated by spice. If a food has spice, the person eating it will be more sensitive to salt.
The best way to control sodium? Get in the kitchen
The conclusion is that those who add spice to their foods can add less salt — and not miss it. That's easier to manage when you're cooking your own meals, but most of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods. Even if these foods are spicy, they probably also have a high salt content. To get the benefits of reducing salt, you'll need to get back in the kitchen and try reaching for the hot sauce.
But keep in mind that you'll need to watch the sodium in store bought hot sauces. Many of them are high in sodium. You can make your own hot sauce, like Roasted Haberno Hot Sauce, which contains just a dash of sea salt, or take a look at this list of 25 No and Low Sodium Hot Sauce Brands. The standard hot sauce in many homes — Tabasco Original Red — has just 35 mg of sodium per teaspoon. But another popular brand, particularly for those who make Buffalo Sauce, is Frank's Red Hot. It has 168 mg of sodium.
Next time you're cooking a dish that works with hot sauce, chose a no- or low-sodium version. Then reduce the amount of salt you add to the dish and see what happens. Plus, if the dish has some healthy fats in it, you'll get a double dose of health benefits. Capsaicin is good for you. It has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects, and those increase when capsaicin combined with fat.
Sounds like a perfect excuse to get creative in the kitchen.