Taste buds can adapt to low-salt diets, study claims

Posted: 23 May 2022 | | No comments yet

If the study is correct and taste buds can adapt to lower-sodium diets, then in theory the job of the dietitian will become considerably easier when it comes to encouraging healthier foods.

taste buds

A new study claims that human taste buds adapt to low-salt foods, which could solve one of the biggest problems health professionals have in encouraging a change in diet. The small study was presented at ACNAP-EuroHeartCare Congress 2022, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).

“One of the major barriers to sticking to a low salt diet is that people do not like the taste, but few studies have addressed this issue,” said study author Professor Misook Chung of the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

“Our pilot study in patients with high blood pressure shows that it is possible to change taste perception and learn to like food with less salt.”

The authors of the study claim hypertension affects more than one billion people worldwide and is a major global cause of premature death. A healthy lifestyle, including salt restriction, is recommended to delay the need for blood pressure lowering drugs or complement their effects. However, the benefits of reduced sodium intake on blood pressure tend to diminish with time, partly due to poor adherence.

The researchers developed the Sodium Watchers Programme – Hypertension (SWaP-HTN) for gradual taste adaptation to low salt food. This study examined its short-term effects on sodium intake, blood pressure, preference for salty food, and enjoyment of a sodium restricted diet. A total of 29 adults with hypertension were randomly assigned to the intervention or usual care in a 2:1 ratio. Participants in the usual care group received routine medical and nursing care for hypertension including advice to follow a sodium restricted diet and take prescribed medications.

The intervention group received 16 weeks of education and follow-up with a study nurse via video call on a tablet. Sessions were held weekly for six weeks, then every two weeks for 10 weeks. The programme was individualised to each patient’s barriers and weekly goals and included salt added at the table, salt used during cooking, grocery shopping, and eating in restaurants. Participants received an electronic device that detects salt content to enable them to identify and avoid high salt food.

“One of the first steps was for patients to realise how much salt they were eating. Using the electronic device they could test the salt content of restaurant meals and ask the chef to reduce or eliminate salt on their next visit,” Professor Chung explained.

“They also used it at home to lower the salt content in their own cooking. Some people automatically added salt at the table before tasting the food so we asked participants to count the number of ‘shakes’ and set goals for reducing it. Most participants removed the saltshaker from the table within three weeks.”

Professor Chung added: “In the intervention group, sodium intake dropped by 1,158 mg per day, which was a 30% reduction from baseline, while the control group increased daily intake by 500 mg. Enjoyment of a low salt diet increased in the intervention group, from 4.8 to 6.5 on a 10-point scale, although patients still preferred salty food. It is likely that the intervention did not translate to a statistically significant fall in blood pressure because of the small sample size.

“Our study indicates that we can retrain our taste buds to enjoy low sodium food and gradually reduce the amount of salt we eat. The gradual taste adaptation programme has the potential to control blood pressure but needs to be tested in a larger trial with longer follow up,” Chung concluded.