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News about the merits of sodium reduction keeps getting better.

For years, physicians and nutritionists have been promoting the benefits of reduced sodium. Now they're more convinced than ever of the merits of sodium (salt) reduction as a sustainable strategy for securing our long-term health.

Scientists writing in the New England Journal of Medicine contend that even modest reductions in salt intake can reduce cases of heart disease, stroke and heart attacks as much as reductions in smoking, obesity and cholesterol levels.

In fact, if everyone consumed half a teaspoon less salt each day, there would be between 54,000 and 99,000 fewer heart attacks each year and between 44,000 and 92,000 fewer deaths, according to a study conducted by scientists at the University of California San Francisco, Stanford University Medical Center and Columbia University Medical Center.

This may be only the beginning: A panel convened by the Institute of Medicine, the independent research arm of the National Academies of Science, will soon release a report offering recommendations on how to reduce salt intake.

Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration is also considering changing salt from a food additive that is generally considered safe to a category that would require companies to divulge more information to consumers about the risks associated with consuming too much salt.

Physicians and nutritionists have known for a long time that reducing sodium intake involves more than simply laying off table salt. They also have stressed for years the value of reducing all sources of dietary sodium.

By some estimates, for example, reducing sodium in processed foods and home cooking as well as table use could result in a 5 to 10 percent reduction in systolic pressure.

However, salt reduction is only part of the picture, according to Dr. Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutrition and health specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science.

Potassium, widely available in fresh fruits and vegetables, is a major player in blood pressure reduction.

"If we can get people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables at least five times a day, we're getting less sodium and more potassium," Keith says.

"We've discovered that people with more potassium and relatively less sodium in their diets tend to have lower blood pressure, while people with high blood pressure tend to consume foods higher in sodium and lower in potassium."

In fact, studies have shown that people who do not reduce their sodium intake can still reap some significant benefits with blood pressure merely by increasing their intake of potassium to levels greater than that of sodium.

On important rule of thumb for people trying to increase their potassium intake is to concentrate on fresh and frozen vegetables and to avoid canned vegetables, which tend to be high in sodium and low in potassium.

"A cup of fresh peas amounts to several hundred milligrams of potassium and almost no sodium at all," Keith says. "On the other hand, if you use canned peas, you'll get just the opposite: several hundred milligrams of sodium and very little potassium."

All in all, the recommendation for reducing sodium in the diet could be summed up this way: Light on the table salt, heavy on the fruits and vegetables, especially fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.