The Great Salt Controversy

How much is too much?
February 4, 2015 Updated: March 11, 2015

Public health experts have warned for decades of premature death from eating too much salt. Yet American salt consumption remains well above recommended limits. Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that salt restriction may actually cause disease.

Hundreds of studies have been done on salt, but conflicting research can make a cloudy picture. The key component of this salty debate is sodium—a mineral which makes up 40 percent of table salt (the rest is chloride).

Sodium is vital to human health—no scientist disputes this. But good health is an issue of balance and the scientific argument over sodium is an issue of dosage.

Most Americans consume about 3,400 mg of sodium (about 1.5 teaspoons of table salt) per day. Public health organizations recommend between 1,500 mg and 2,300 mg a day, depending upon risk factors for disease.

According to the Salt Institute—a non-profit organization dedicated to all things salt—daily salt consumption over two teaspoons a day is actually quite safe. In fact, they warn that sodium restrictions of less than 2,600 mg may actually decrease life expectancy and cognitive function, while increasing risks of disease, such as diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes.

Despite a growing call to reconsider salt restrictions, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Heart Association, and other health organizations have remained committed to their guidelines, and in their push for less salt in the food supply.


Influence of Big Salt

In an effort to help dieticians sort out the science, nutrition consultant and author Dr. Janet Brill will be giving a webinar on May 3 titled “Salt: Shaking Out Fact from Fiction.”

According to Brill, the Salt Institute is the main source of the confusion. She says they intentionally blur scientific consensus to further their pro-salt agenda.

“The Salt Institute is basically the Tobacco Institute reincarnated,” she said. “It is a very powerful propaganda machine.”

Brill points to a study published April 2014 in the American Journal of Hypertension. The study got a lot of attention because researchers identified a safe range of sodium consumption of between 2,645 mg and 4,945 mg a day, but Brill is unconvinced.

“It was written by Michael Alderman who is incredibly the editor of the journal, and he’s also served on the Salt Institute’s advisory board since 1996,” she said. “Talk about a conflict of interest.”

Risk of Heart Disease

By far the biggest health concern associated with high sodium intake is high blood pressure—a connection that’s been observed for over 100 years. Since high blood pressure is a huge factor in heart disease, and since heart disease is by far the world’s number one cause of premature death, the logic follows that restricting salt saves lives.

However, the extent to which salt intake actually influences heart disease is a big bone of contention.

Some say the correlation is tenuous at best, as some studies reveal no signs of hypertension with salt consumption. In fact, alcohol, obesity, and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables are better established influences on high blood pressure.

Brill, however, considers salt a “slow poison.”

“Over time eating a very high salt intake, which most Americans do, is going to affect your body more than just with high blood pressure. It’s harmful to your organs,” she said.

Workers extract salt at a salt-mine near the Siberian town of Barnaul on Aug. 15, 2011. (ALEXANDER BLOTNITSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers extract salt at a salt mine near the Siberian town of Barnaul on Aug. 15, 2011. (ALEXANDER BLOTNITSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Culture of Salt

The Epoch Times arranged for an interview with a representative from the Salt Institute, but no contact was made by press time. Their idea of salt as a wholesome and beneficial seasoning is compelling because it appeals to both our sense of taste and culture.

For most of human history salt was a precious substance. Salt not only gives food a savory flavor, it also prevents bacteria production. Until modern refrigeration, salt was the world’s primary method of food preservation.

Some health experts suggest that it’s the quality of salt that is responsible for poor health. The understanding is that ancient cultures consumed salt with a spectrum of minerals beyond sodium and chloride. Meanwhile, modern table salt—which has been stripped of its complex minerality, bleached, and mixed with anti-caking agents to promote a free flow of crystals—is the true cause of disease.

Brill doesn’t buy it.

“Salt is salt. It’s the sodium that’s the villain. Any kind of salt: sea salt, Himalayan rock salt, it’s not a health food,” she said. “You can get your minerals from healthy foods, not from salt for God’s sake.”

According to the CDC, bread and rolls are one of the top ten sources of dietary salt. (Stephan Bock/iStock/Thinkstock)
According to the CDC, bread and rolls are one of the top ten sources of dietary salt. (Stephan Bock/iStock/Thinkstock)

Cutting Back

You may never touch the salt shaker but still get too much because nearly 80 percent of American salt intake comes from restaurants and processed food.

This year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will release guidelines for food makers to voluntarily lower salt content, but some public health organizations feel stronger action is necessary. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), companies would have to reduce sodium by half in order for people to reach the recommended 2,300 mg per day level, and by 70 percent for others to achieve daily intake of 1,500 mg.

Such huge reductions are not likely to happen without government intervention. But some health professionals fear that if they can’t use salt, American food companies may simply turn to bioengineered chemicals to appeal to consumer expectations.

The best personal strategy for reducing salt consumption involves making your own food from fresh ingredients. However, if you are used to a high level of salt, anything less will seem bland and boring.

Brill says we have to train our tongues to do with less salt. She advocates cooking with strong spices to make up for the lack of saltiness.

“Commercial tomato sauce is basically sea water. I make an amazing tomato sauce at home, and I use a lot of herbs, onions, and garlic” Brill said. “That gives it flavor without salt.”

Salty Facts

According to the CDC, nearly half the sodium we eat each day comes from only 10 types of food.

Salt was valued so highly in ancient times that it was used in trade and currency. In some cases, salt was tightly restricted to protect lucrative salt monopolies. Oppressive salt laws sparked the French Revolution and the end of British rule in India.

While sodium has been shown to raise blood pressure, potassium is found to decrease it. Experts say that a diet high in potassium can help balance out some of excess sodium’s harmful effects. White beans, spinach, and avocados are excellent sources.

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