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The Health Benefits of Potassium in a Label

The Food and Drug Administration has agreed to let companies provide new food information labels about the health benefits of potassium. The FDA's new health claim: diets containing foods that are good sources of potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Lawrence Appel, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, joined the Early Show to talk about the benefits of the nutrient.

"We have known that potassium is a key player in blood pressure and stroke regulation for some time, but this message hasn't reached our patients,' says Appel. "So much of what people know about nutrition today comes from what they read on food labels. This new health claim will be a tremendous help in teaching people about potassium's benefits."

Appel's studies under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) helped to convince the FDA of the importance of potassium labeling. He founded the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which promoted the benefits of potassium in reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. The NIH studies found that potassium is an effective way to reduce heart disease, but the mineral must also be combined with low-salt and lower-fat diets.

"The DASH diet was higher in potassium and magnesium, and lower in fat," says Appel. "There are lots of things different. In terms of nutrients, my hunch is that potassium is part of it, even though our study wasn't to isolate the affect of any one nutrient."

Potassium reportedly lowers blood pressure because it relaxes blood vessels that seem to have an impact on reducing the risk of stroke. The recommended daily intake of the mineral is 3500 mg, and Appel encourages getting most of that in food as opposed to supplements. A banana has 350 mg, as does one glass of orange juice. Other foods rich in potassium include other fruit juices, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits.

Appel says potassium isn't just good for people with heart disease. He says many people don't realize that blood pressure rises with age, and nutrients such as potassium could help lower it. Other nutrients in food that could lower blood pressure include fiber, vitamin C and folate.

"The thing about foods is you try to isolate the effective one nutrient, but it's probably a combination," says Appel. "You should try to get it through foods rather than pills."

For people who want to incorporate potassium and other heart-healthy minerals into their diet, Appel recommends a breakfast including a banana, juice and raisins, a salad for lunch and two vegetables instead of one for dinner.

Even with all the benefits of potassium, experts say there's one group of people where potassium is a problem--people with advanced kidney disease. Other than that medical condition, Appel says there's no harm if people have 4000 to 5000 mg of potassium.

For years, the juice company Tropicana had been pressuring the FDA to allow them to add labes on their orange juice stating that potassium can help prevent heart disease and stroke. Prior to this week, they had not been permitted to do so.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country, killing an estimated one million people annually.

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