Editor's Plate: Salts Gets in Some Licks

Aug. 16, 2011
But don't rush to judgment on either side of the sodium debate.

"It seems like everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know."

Citing singer Michael Franti ["Say Hey (I Love You)] is a pretty obscure way to start an editorial on salt and sodium. Bear with me.

For years now, I've been assaulted by both sides of the sodium debate. Like most people, especially consumers, I've heard the dire warnings by no less than our own government – which I wholeheartedly and implicitly trust – that salt will kill me. That I will be one of 250 gazillion deaths per year that could have been avoided if the food industry would only remove demon salt from the packaged foods I buy.

And for every sodium reduction story and webcast that we've created, I've been browbeaten by the food scientists on our staff that salt has gotten a bad rap, that all the connections to cardiovascular disease are based on a fallacy. Well, the previous month or two brought news from a number of fronts that salt and sodium may have been getting a bad rap, that there is insufficient proof of a connection to hypertension and heart disease, at least among healthy people.

But I'm unconvinced – either way. Like so much science – especially where food and health converge – for every research finding there's an equal and opposite refinding.


In short: One study says salt increases hypertension; another says it only harms people who already have high blood pressure; one focuses on our potassium-to-sodium ratio; and one even goes so far as to theorize that sodium reduction leads to higher mortality.

That last conclusion is perplexing, but it comes from the May issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. "In this population-based cohort, systolic blood pressure, but not diastolic pressure, changes over time aligned with change in sodium excretion, but this association did not translate into a higher risk of hypertension or CVD complications. Lower sodium excretion was associated with higher CVD mortality."

I asked one of our technical editors if I was reading that correctly. He assured me I was; that, among people with normal blood pressure, sodium intake didn't lead to high blood pressure. In fact, at least in this study, the subjects who consumed lower amounts of sodium were more likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Then, the July issue of the Journal of Hypertension reported on "The Cochrane [Library] Review of Sodium and Health," which had this conclusion: "cutting down on the amount of salt has no clear benefits in terms of likelihood of dying or experiencing cardiovascular disease."

While this month's Wellness Foods main story (Salt Pinches Back) was supposed to be about sodium reduction strategies – and it still is – our two technical editors – David Feder, R.D., and Mark Anthony Ph.D. – nevertheless get their pro-salt licks in.

On our news pages, we report on Campbell Soup's surprise announcement that it is putting some of the salt back into many of its soups. With soup sales sagging and a new CEO taking control, it's an interesting admission – although, to be fair, Denise Morrison had plenty of nice things to say about the past sodium reduction effort, as well as many other new strategies at Campbell.

Not to put words in her mouth, but she seemed to conclude: A little sodium reduction is good, especially for some people. But it's neither necessary nor accepted by consumers across-the-board. It's not a panacea. Customers should have the right to choose whether they consume higher or lower levels of salt.

And I know you've heard this one before: Taste is paramount. You can force-feed consumers all the healthy foods you can make but if they're given a better-tasting option, they're gonna take it. Apparently that was a lesson Campbell learned.

This whole salt debate also bothers me because it takes some of the spotlight away from – and interjects doubt – about the truly critical food-health issue: that fat and unnecessary calories make you obese.

It would be great if there were a final and authoritative statement on this sodium-hypertension debate, one that closes the book on it. But I don't think anyone believes that's forthcoming.

My worthless advice: Don't suddenly jump on the pro-salt bandwagon just because of some new studies. But if your customer demographic wants sodium reduction, give it to them.

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