Bad Science Slams Salt

Again this year, salt was slammed by both the USDA and the Center for Science in the Public Interest in reports that had all of the trappings of legitimate science, but little - if any - substance.

By David Feder, R.D., Managing Editor

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One study being brandished with reckless abandon by the anti-salt squads is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study. While by no means the first study whose conclusion contradicts its own findings, the DASH study is one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date on the topic.

DASH found the biggest changes from decreasing sodium intake did occur in healthy adults. But that change was only 7.0 mm Hg systolic/3.8 mm Hg diastolic. Changes in persons with hypertension were, in many cases, small enough to have virtually no clinical significance (0.5 mm Hg). High blood pressure is 140/90 and above. Prehypertension is 125/80 and above. The study was not long-term, and there were certain variables that had not been taken into consideration.

Blood pressure readings can vary based on a number of variables, such as whether the reading is taken while sitting or lying down, early in the day or late, on a full stomach or an empty stomach, or how stressful your day has been. The conclusions of the DASH study were still to unequivocally recommend decreased salt consumption based on such nonresults. (The International Food Information Council recently published an extensive and comprehensive reference review on the state of sodium and health studies to date. This white paper can be viewed at www.ific.org/publications/reviews/sodiumir.cfm.)

Consumers unmoved

Despite this new wave of critics on the salt-restriction bandwagon, there are signs consumers will not give up their favorite seasoning.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) is a periodic survey that assesses the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the U.S. Conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control, the NHANES has shown our enjoyment of the mineral has held steady for the past quarter century or longer. In fact, there was a jump in salt intake reflected in NHANES II over NHANES I, although that may have been due to data analysis improvements in the methodology of the survey.

Another indication that consumers reject salt rejection recently came to light via ACNielsen research. Of the 10 label-claim segments analyzed by the consumer research company through its LabelTrends service, the reduced-sodium segment was the only one to experience sales declines in the first four weeks of 2005 versus the previous four-week period.

Processors have several options in the latest round of the salt war. They can ignore the situation and it will probably go away — as it has before. The fact is, people like salt and years of telling people, for good or ill, to cut their intake has had virtually no effect.

When it comes to reducing salt content in processed foods, Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy for the Food Products Association (www.nfpa-food.org) in Washington, notes, "Food manufacturers are continually addressing sodium in food and beverage products by reducing sodium or salt without compromising taste or safety, and by providing consumers with a large variety of reduced-, low- and no-sodium/salt options."

But Earl notes that, for some foods, reducing sodium content can present challenges. "In the savory snack category, technological innovation has moved savory and salty flavors to the surface of products using as little sodium as possible," he says. "But, also you have to consider the food safety reasons for using salt in many foods. Salt is a time-proven ingredient that keeps safe food safe. Plus, there's naturally occurring sodium in virtually all foods, whether fresh, frozen or canned."

Salt substitutes are an option manufacturers have employed for a long time. The most common, potassium chloride, is used in a variety of applications, from shaker to processing. But price is a major consideration with salt replacers and enhancers.

Another option is using a “salt enhancer.” Mastertaste, a Kerry Group company, developed a naturally derived (via Maillard reaction) flavor enhancement system that’s water soluble and heat stable. The enhancer provides the palate a perception of salt and overall savory profile with no aftertaste. It does not rely on potassium, magnesium or other ions nor is it an autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed protein, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate or monosodium glutamate product.

Until a comprehensive, clinical trial covering all variables is conducted, it’s imprudent to insist healthy people make drastic dietary changes to reduce their salt intake. In fact, based on the best studies to date, all evidence indicates such changes to be unwarranted. Just because some people are nearsighted it doesn’t mean everyone else has to wear glasses, too.

As long as good taste continues to supersede or at least equal healthfulness on many consumers' priority lists when they choose what to place in their shopping carts, the jobs of these salt farmers in Thailand should remain secure.
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