Salt Assault

Processed food and restaurant meals should contain 50 percent less salt, says the American Public Health Association. The APHA passed that resolution this week at its annual meeting.

It’s too bad the APHA resorted to a recommendation based on 1970s-think and self-interest rather than current scientific research.

"Americans are consuming an ever-increasing amount of processed foods high in sodium at home, at work, at school and in restaurants," policy author and University of Maryland researcher Dr. Stephen Havas told the Associated Press. "The excess sodium in these foods is unnecessary and leads to a large, preventable toll of hypertension, premature death and disability," added Havas.

The APHA said the reduction could save 150,000 lives a year from strokes, heart attacks and other illnesses linked to high blood pressure and urged collaboration with food manufacturers.

Taking the recommendation almost lying down was the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a major trade group for food processors. "A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and dairy products could also help lower blood pressure," was the GMA’s cryptic, if not wimpy response in the AP article.

It sure is sad when businesses can’t -- or won’t -- defend their products and consumers from junk science-fueled fearmongers.

Here’s the low down on dietary salt.

In the 1970s, researchers obsessed over an apparent link between dietary salt and high blood pressure. Some moved on to consider potential links between dietary salt and more meaningful health outcomes -- i.e., actual diseases like heart attack and stroke versus the not-necessarily-harmful condition of elevated blood pressure.

Last September, in the British Medical Journal,  researchers from the United Kingdom published a systematic review and analysis of 11 randomized control trials about dietary salt’s effect on blood pressure and health. The trials involved 3,500 subjects followed for up to seven years.

"Intensive" reductions in dietary salt produced only slight reductions in blood pressure and urinary sodium excretion. The blood pressure reduction worked out to 1.1 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) for the systolic, and 0.6 mm Hg for the diastolic measurements -- essentially meaningless changes. ("Optimal" blood pressure is 120 mm Hg systolic and 80 mm Hg diastolic.)

More importantly, no decrease in deaths and cardiovascular disease was reported among study subjects on reduced salt intake.

As to any benefit from reduced salt intake, the researchers could only say that reduced sodium intake "may help people [taking blood pressure medicine] to stop their medication while maintaining good control of blood pressure.

The researchers concluded "there are doubts about effects of sodium reduction on overall health."

Is this the sort of "one study wonder" that I often criticize as junk science? Hardly.

Since 1995, 10 studies have reported on whether lower sodium diets produce health benefits. All 10 studies indicate that, among the general population, lower sodium diets don’t produce health benefits.

In fact, not a single study has ever shown improved health outcomes for populations on reduced sodium diets.

Why does the public health establishment continue to recommend reduced dietary salt consumption despite the tide of scientific evidence to the contrary?

The anti-salt crusade is led by the damn-the-torpedoes nannies at the federal National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The agency won’t admit that it jumped the gun in recommending reduced dietary salt 25 years ago and that it’s been wrong ever since.

The APHA, in turn, is chock full of "researchers" living off federal agencies like the NHLBI.

Not surprisingly, APHA policy-author Dr. Havas is funded by the NHLBI in the form of three ongoing five-year grants -- a conflict-of-interest not reported by the media. For Dr. Havas, advancing the NHLBI’s agenda is simply good business.

The anti-salt crusade isn’t necessarily harmless junk science.

Some studies indicate low-salt diets may pose health risks of their own. Salt, after all, is essential to good health.

Two studies by hypertension specialist and American Hypertension Society past-president Michael Alderman even report a slightly higher death rate among those with low-salt diets.

The salt nannies might be on firmer ground if they focused on "salt sensitivity," rather than simply salt intake. Genetic background and lifestyle make some individuals hypersensitive to salt intake.

Americans under-consume recommended amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium. These deficiencies contribute to salt sensitivity. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and dairy products can reduce salt sensitivity.

If we’re going to reduce anything by 50 percent, how about the NHLBI’s budget -- at least until it stops its effort to save face by scare-mongering and starts providing the public with advice based on the best science available?

Steven Milloy is the publisher , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001)

Respond to the Writer