Replacing salt with low-sodium salt substitutes (LSSS) for cardiovascular health in adults, children and pregnant women

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2022 Aug 10;8(8):CD015207. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD015207.


Background: Elevated blood pressure, or hypertension, is the leading cause of preventable deaths globally. Diets high in sodium (predominantly sodium chloride) and low in potassium contribute to elevated blood pressure. The WHO recommends decreasing mean population sodium intake through effective and safe strategies to reduce hypertension and its associated disease burden. Incorporating low-sodium salt substitutes (LSSS) into population strategies has increasingly been recognised as a possible sodium reduction strategy, particularly in populations where a substantial proportion of overall sodium intake comes from discretionary salt. The LSSS contain lower concentrations of sodium through its displacement with potassium predominantly, or other minerals. Potassium-containing LSSS can potentially simultaneously decrease sodium intake and increase potassium intake. Benefits of LSSS include their potential blood pressure-lowering effect and relatively low cost. However, there are concerns about potential adverse effects of LSSS, such as hyperkalaemia, particularly in people at risk, for example, those with chronic kidney disease (CKD) or taking medications that impair potassium excretion.

Objectives: To assess the effects and safety of replacing salt with LSSS to reduce sodium intake on cardiovascular health in adults, pregnant women and children.

Search methods: We searched MEDLINE (PubMed), Embase (Ovid), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), Web of Science Core Collection (Clarivate Analytics), Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL, EBSCOhost), and WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) up to 18 August 2021, and screened reference lists of included trials and relevant systematic reviews. No language or publication restrictions were applied.

Selection criteria: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and prospective analytical cohort studies in participants of any age in the general population, from any setting in any country. This included participants with non-communicable diseases and those taking medications that impair potassium excretion. Studies had to compare any type and method of implementation of LSSS with the use of regular salt, or no active intervention, at an individual, household or community level, for any duration.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently screened titles, abstracts and full-text articles to determine eligibility; and extracted data, assessed risk of bias (RoB) using the Cochrane RoB tool, and assessed the certainty of the evidence using GRADE. We stratified analyses by adults, children (≤ 18 years) and pregnant women. Primary effectiveness outcomes were change in diastolic and systolic blood pressure (DBP and SBP), hypertension and blood pressure control; cardiovascular events and cardiovascular mortality were additionally assessed as primary effectiveness outcomes in adults. Primary safety outcomes were change in blood potassium, hyperkalaemia and hypokalaemia.

Main results: We included 26 RCTs, 16 randomising individual participants and 10 randomising clusters (families, households or villages). A total of 34,961 adult participants and 92 children were randomised to either LSSS or regular salt, with the smallest trial including 10 and the largest including 20,995 participants. No studies in pregnant women were identified. Studies included only participants with hypertension (11/26), normal blood pressure (1/26), pre-hypertension (1/26), or participants with and without hypertension (11/26). This was unknown in the remaining studies. The largest study included only participants with an elevated risk of stroke at baseline. Seven studies included adult participants possibly at risk of hyperkalaemia. All 26 trials specifically excluded participants in whom an increased potassium intake is known to be potentially harmful. The majority of trials were conducted in rural or suburban settings, with more than half (14/26) conducted in low- and middle-income countries. The proportion of sodium chloride replacement in the LSSS interventions varied from approximately 3% to 77%. The majority of trials (23/26) investigated LSSS where potassium-containing salts were used to substitute sodium. In most trials, LSSS implementation was discretionary (22/26). Trial duration ranged from two months to nearly five years. We assessed the overall risk of bias as high in six trials and unclear in 12 trials. LSSS compared to regular salt in adults: LSSS compared to regular salt probably reduce DBP on average (mean difference (MD) -2.43 mmHg, 95% confidence interval (CI) -3.50 to -1.36; 20,830 participants, 19 RCTs, moderate-certainty evidence) and SBP (MD -4.76 mmHg, 95% CI -6.01 to -3.50; 21,414 participants, 20 RCTs, moderate-certainty evidence) slightly. On average, LSSS probably reduce non-fatal stroke (absolute effect (AE) 20 fewer/100,000 person-years, 95% CI -40 to 2; 21,250 participants, 3 RCTs, moderate-certainty evidence), non-fatal acute coronary syndrome (AE 150 fewer/100,000 person-years, 95% CI -250 to -30; 20,995 participants, 1 RCT, moderate-certainty evidence) and cardiovascular mortality (AE 180 fewer/100,000 person-years, 95% CI -310 to 0; 23,200 participants, 3 RCTs, moderate-certainty evidence) slightly, and probably increase blood potassium slightly (MD 0.12 mmol/L, 95% CI 0.07 to 0.18; 784 participants, 6 RCTs, moderate-certainty evidence), compared to regular salt. LSSS may result in little to no difference, on average, in hypertension (AE 17 fewer/1000, 95% CI -58 to 17; 2566 participants, 1 RCT, low-certainty evidence) and hyperkalaemia (AE 4 more/100,000, 95% CI -47 to 121; 22,849 participants, 5 RCTs, moderate-certainty evidence) compared to regular salt. The evidence is very uncertain about the effects of LSSS on blood pressure control, various cardiovascular events, stroke mortality, hypokalaemia, and other adverse events (very-low certainty evidence). LSSS compared to regular salt in children: The evidence is very uncertain about the effects of LSSS on DBP and SBP in children. We found no evidence about the effects of LSSS on hypertension, blood pressure control, blood potassium, hyperkalaemia and hypokalaemia in children.

Authors' conclusions: When compared to regular salt, LSSS probably reduce blood pressure, non-fatal cardiovascular events and cardiovascular mortality slightly in adults. However, LSSS also probably increase blood potassium slightly in adults. These small effects may be important when LSSS interventions are implemented at the population level. Evidence is limited for adults without elevated blood pressure, and there is a lack of evidence in pregnant women and people in whom an increased potassium intake is known to be potentially harmful, limiting conclusions on the safety of LSSS in the general population. We also cannot draw firm conclusions about effects of non-discretionary LSSS implementations. The evidence is very uncertain about the effects of LSSS on blood pressure in children.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperkalemia*
  • Hypertension* / drug therapy
  • Hypokalemia*
  • Potassium / therapeutic use
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnant Women
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Sodium
  • Sodium Chloride / therapeutic use
  • Sodium Chloride, Dietary / adverse effects
  • Stroke*


  • Sodium Chloride, Dietary
  • Sodium Chloride
  • Sodium
  • Potassium