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No bitter battle over salt science

01-Feb-2010

Related topics: Market Trends, Salt reduction

Excess salt can cause hypertension, heart disease, death. That’s the scientific consensus behind public health campaigns to reduce consumption of sodium chloride in the diet. But not everyone reads the science as conclusive, and when it comes to minerals that are essential to human life, the voice of caution must not be drowned out.

Concern over the impact of too much salt weighs heavy on governments, pushing them towards costly public health campaigns. Around the world, salt awareness-raising from the top down is being met by bottom-up action from food manufacturers, who are deeply engrossed in reformulation to reduce the salt in their products.

Bit-by-bit, excess salt is being squeezed out by a combination of education and choice-editing.

But not everyone is convinced salt is all that bad.

Whoa, hang on. That’s a bit of a bombshell. Surely we know this by now? Just last week scientists said 3 grams less salt a day would save 92,000 deaths a year – and $24 billion in health care costs.

Indeed they did. But in the other corner is the salt industry – EU Salt, and the US Salt Institute. They don’t see consensus in the science on salt, as some studies have not found cause for alarm. Rather, regular assessment of intervention outcomes is needed, and a close eye on emerging evidence.

Pah. The salt lobby. Those guys make a living out of pushing sodium chloride, right? Their pockets are lined with the stuff. Remember big tobacco used to tell people that smoking was good for their health?

Sure, it’s important to remember who is behind every message, and what their vested interests could be. History tells us messages can be twisted for personal gain.

But it’s also important to remember that, unlike tobacco, the optimal amount of salt for health is not zero. Humans need some salt to survive. The sodium balances our water and pH levels, and ensures transmission of nerve impulses; chloride helps fight infection, helps digestion and the absorption of potassium, and helps carry carbon dioxide to the lungs.

Salt is not a black and white issue, nor is science always squeaky clean and irrefutable; and some people who work for big companies are actually good guys who would rather you didn’t die prematurely.

It’s not just salt producers who are wary of the demonisation of salt, either. Last week FoodNavigator received feedback from a respected journalist colleague who reached the conclusion, after wading through 140 studies on salt (more than I have, I’ll admit), that the evidence for harm caused by excess salt is not irrefutable.

He believes scientists are caught up in the tide of bidding farewell to salt, and losing all objectivity on the subject, he believes.

Ellie Krieger, dietician and best-selling author, suggests in her So Easy book that people might want to add salt to low-salt foods to improve the taste – although she says the final level would still be below what the food industry would have added, she reckons.

So where do we go from here?

Humans have always eaten salt; it’s the earliest form of food preservation, and without it many billions would have starved or perished from eating rotten meat.

But we do eat more salt today than ever before.

This week is Salt Awareness week. Raising awareness of the current science is a good thing. It’s devilishly difficult to make processed and packaged foods without adding salt, but efforts to reduce levels on the basis of current science are to be lauded too.

Another goal should be to raise awareness of where there is a lack of consensus. There's no need for the pro- and anti-salt lobbies to be at loggerheads.

Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States.