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updated 11/18/2014 10:15:11 AM ET 2014-11-18T15:15:11

CHICAGO — A small device that detects the amount of salt in food could help people with heart disease lower the amount of salt in their diet to improve their heart health, a new study shows.

The patients in the study who used the device reduced their daily salt intake from 3,894 milligrams to 3,604 mg over the three-month study period. The study participants also reported at the end of the study that they enjoyed eating foods with less salt, and 90 percent said they noticed that they were better able to detect small amounts of salt in their food.

"We had a goal each week: We wanted patients to adapt gradually to low-salt food," said study researcher Misook Chung, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing.

The battery-powered salt measurement device — which is similar to ones that are commercially available, and cost the researchers about $40 to buy —looks like a probe that "zaps" any hot, liquid food and instantly displays the salt level. [ 4 Tips for Reducing Sodium ]

The study included 15 patients with heart failure. About half of them received a salt monitoring device and were given detailed information about how to avoid high-salt foods, whereas the rest were given the standard nutrition information for heart failure patients, and served as a control group for comparison.

The study also included family members who were taking care of the patients, because they, too, should watch their salt intake, the researchers said.

"When someone has heart failure, it means their family members are also at risk because family members have pretty much the same pattern of diet," Chung said.

After three months, the patients and their caregivers who received the salt-monitoring devices had reduced their salt levels, as measured in urine tests, according to the study, which was presented here at the meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA) on Sunday (Nov. 16).

The caregivers' average daily salt intake decreased from 4,123 mg to 3,380 mg during the study, the researchers found. The study participants reported that using the device was easy and helpful in maintaining a low-salt diet.

The participants who did not engage in the program had no change in their salt levels during the study, the researchers said.

Salt is a nutrient that's necessary for the body to function. But too much salt causes high blood pressure  because it leads the body to hold excess fluid and makes the heart work harder, according to the AHA.

Americans are advised to limit salt consumption to less than 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon) of salt per day. People who have an increased risk of heart disease — including people ages 51 and older, African Americans and people with diabetes  or kidney disease — should limit their daily salt intake to 1,500 mg per day, according to U.S. government dietary guidelines.

However, on average, Americans consume about 3,400 mg of salt per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the study, it wasn't just the devices that helped people lower their salt intake, Chung said. The program also educated participants about the effects of high levels of salt, and told them what the recommended levels are and how to look for salt content on food labels.

Next, researchers are planning to study more long-term effects of the program, and examine whether participants can continue to keep their salt intake low for months and even years later.

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