Our Government’s Continuing A-Salt On Science

The most recent Dietary Guidelines declared that cholesterol is “no longer a nutrient of concern.”  Yup, after nearly 40 years of warning people away from egg yolks, the government folks finally checked the actual science and then sort of admitted being wrong.  It was a step forward.  But, government being what it is, I suppose a corresponding step backwards was inevitable.  Here are some quotes from a recent article in The Chicago  Tribune:

The Obama administration is pressuring the food industry to make foods from breads to sliced turkey less salty, proposing long-awaited sodium guidelines in an effort to prevent thousands of deaths each year from heart disease and stroke.

So the Obama administration must have solid scientific evidence that reducing sodium in food products will prevent heart attacks and strokes … just like the First Lady must have solid evidence that telling kids “Let’s Move!” and cutting the fat and calories in their school lunches will reduce obesity.  But we’ll come back to the salt-cardiovascular disease evidence.

The guidelines released Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration are voluntary, so food companies won’t be required to comply, and it could be a year or more before they are final. But the idea is to persuade companies and restaurants — many of which have already lowered sodium levels in their products — to take a more consistent approach.

Ah, I see: the guidelines are voluntary.  Based on government history, here’s how that will work:

“Hey, food companies, we’d like you volunteer to reduce the sodium in food.”

“No thanks.  People don’t like the food as much when we lower the sodium.”

“You don’t seem to understand.  We’re asking you to do this voluntarily.”

“Got it.  Voluntary guidelines.  So we choose not to follow them.”

“Well, then, we’ll have to force you to follow them.”

“But you said the guidelines were voluntary.”

“Yes, but you didn’t volunteer, so now we’re imposing them.”

Sodium content already is included on existing food labels, but the government has not set specific sodium recommendations. The guidelines suggest limits for about 150 categories of foods, from cereals to pizzas and sandwiches. There are two-year and 10-year goals.

And a five-year plan issued by the Kremlin.

Health officials from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said overwhelming scientific evidence shows that blood pressure increases when sodium intake increases, increasing the chances of heart disease and stroke.

Overwhelming evidence, eh?  That would mean 1) the science shows that high sodium intake leads to heart attacks and strokes, and 2) the science also shows that most Americans have a high sodium intake that puts them at risk.  And let’s add a third point: before issuing a “voluntary” guideline for lowering the sodium in food, we’d want to be sure that people don’t respond to low-sodium foods by reaching for the salt shaker – which is what I do.

So how much sodium are we consuming, anyway?

Americans eat about 1½ teaspoons of salt daily, or 3,400 milligrams. That amount hasn’t gone down over the years, and it’s about a third more than the government recommends for good health. Most of that sodium is hidden inside common processed foods and restaurant meals, making it harder for consumers to control how much they eat.

I just explained that I have no trouble controlling how much sodium I eat.  Give me low-sodium food, I reach for the salt shaker.  That’s because 1) I like salt on my food, and 2) I’ve actually looked at the science – something regulators at the FDA apparently haven’t. Here’s a quote from a 2011 article in Scientific American:

A meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure.

And here are some quotes from a recent article about a new meta-analysis:

 A controversial new study contends that a low-salt diet could be dangerous for your heart health.

Notice how it’s only “controversial” if a study concludes that government advice is wrong?

Restricting dietary salt to below 3,000 milligrams a day appears to increase the risk for heart disease similar to that of high blood pressure patients who eat too much salt, said lead researcher Andrew Mente.

He said his study results showed that a low-salt diet increases the risk of heart attack or stroke 26 percent for people without high blood pressure and 34 percent for people with high blood pressure.

For those with high blood pressure, too much dietary salt increases their risk 23 percent, the study said.

On the other hand, a diet with excess salt doesn’t increase the risk at all if blood pressure is normal, the study reported.

“Most of the population eats what they’re supposed to eat, based on the data,” Mente said. “They fall in the middle and that’s actually the sweet spot — the safest range of intake.”

Mente’s study is observational, and you know what I think of observational studies are far as demonstrating cause and effect.  But keep in mind that if A causes B, A and B will be correlated.  So if A isn’t correlated with B, A doesn’t cause B.  Mente found that a normal sodium intake – the 3400 milligrams the government says is too much – isn’t associated with heart attacks of strokes.  But a lower sodium intake is.  So naturally, the FDA wants us to cut back.  And they’re (ahem) “asking” food companies to volunteer to help.

Back to the Tribune article:

Some companies have worried that though the limits will be voluntary, the FDA is at heart a regulatory agency, and the guidelines are more warning than suggestion.

Gee, do you think?


51 thoughts on “Our Government’s Continuing A-Salt On Science

  1. Josh

    My problem is all the salt in the full-fat cheese I eat.

    Now, I will consume low-salt, fat-free cheese made from soy fat and seed fats, and various emulsifiers, binders, flavorings, colors texture enhancers and other stuff to make it look like cheese.

      1. Walter Bushell

        I think they have that now. The product looks like cheese, has the consistency of cheese, has the density of cheese and the x-ray effects of cheese. The only way to tell the difference is by taste.

  2. Armando

    Hey Tom,

    The same thing happened here in Australia a couple months ago where a study showed the sodium is bad for you. I got angry at it, because sodium itself is not bad, they added to food that is bad. Like foods that are deep fried in hydrogenated oil and high in sugars. Have any of these scientific geniuses ever thought of isolating salt from these foods and see if it’s actually the culprit? Fine. If they reduce and remove the sodium and the same number of people are dying from heart disease, what they blame it on next? Oh yeah, it’s still the persons fault.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      It’s been done. In one of the big salt studies, researchers tested the results of lowering sodium by 75% in both a junk diet and a pretty good diet. Blood pressure only dropped by about 3 points in both cases. So to make it look as if reducing salt was meaningful, they compared the blood-pressure readings in the high-salt/junk diet with the low-salt/good diet and talked up that difference, which was 11 points.

  3. Dianne

    Doesn’t the Obama administration and the government in general have anything else to do? You know, I’d really love to know how much money could be saved for us taxpayers if the government were to butt out of America’s dietary practices, stop hassling restaurants and other food-related businesses about anything but actual safety issues, stop subsidizing farmers and other businesses so that products could find their natural price levels, and in general stick to doing what the Constitution originally said it was supposed to do.

    Maybe some farms would go under, but I suspect most growers of corn, wheat, etc. would simply find another crop that made money on its own. Farmers are pretty savvy, and tend to know what to plant when. I remember long years ago my mother getting furious because the government paid one of my uncles not to grow a certain crop on his land because surpluses were making prices fall, and he took the money and then planted a different crop the prices of which were not falling. All perfectly legal.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Since everyone has to eat, I can’t believe farmers would go out of business without those subsidies. Kind of like what a friend of my dad’s who worked in the funeral industry told him: we’re recession-proof. People die whether the economy is good or bad.

      1. Walter Bushell

        Pollen admits we get more food per acre from raising beef on grass vice growing corn and soybeans, so the shift could be made. It would take time and, of course, open up more employment opportunities if done al la Polyface Farms.

          1. Walter Bushell

            And get rid of industrial agriculture. Farming al la Polyface Farm just can’t be done on a huge scale, because it requires small adjustments on very local conditions.

    2. Onlooker

      As long as the vast majority of people continue to think that government is the solution to all (with few exceptions, getting fewer by the week) society’s ills, thus enabling other people to enlist govt power to their advantage, and empowering politicians, then we’ll continue to get this meddling, interference and downright theft.

      I’m not holding my breath, although there’s some evidence at the very thin margin that people are waking up to this reality. Maybe. Sigh.

  4. Robert Simms

    Who would pay lobbyists to eliminate salt as competition, I thought. Maybe it’s just that the defenders of processed food are grasping for epidemiological straws to explain life in the corner they’ve painted themselves into — managing lives on high refined carb diets. Micromanaging symptoms.
    Low sodium, causing reduced circulating blood volume and accelerating potassium excretion by the kidneys, could make the blood more prone to clotting and the heart beat irregular An IR person in a hot environment without water to drink to satisfy thirst for a few hours may create a similar situation. I’ve witnessed people have strokes this way.

    Dr Michael Eades shared a quote at the 2015 Cape Town LCHF conference that I feel explains part of the apparent ineptitude.
    Dr Mark Nathan Cohen –
    “The field of medicine often appears naive about the full range of human biological experience. Basing conclusions about human health, even about what’s normal, on the comparatively narrow experience of contemporary Western society.”

    1. Walter Bushell

      It’s know the Dash Diet (very low sodium) can and has killed. Me, I just get bad leg cramps and have to take salt in the middle of the night to cure them.

  5. Tom Welsh

    One of the biggest problems our civilization [sic] faces is how (whether, even) it’s possible to prevent huge quantities of money from influencing and distorting everything.

    Given that government policy is usually the resultant of forces that are mainly financial, how can you possibly arrange for those forces to cancel each other out and let you glimpse the truth?

    I honestly believe that back when I was born (1948) and earlier, there were more motivations that competed with money. People cared about reputation, morality, even honour. Nowadays I get the feeling that those ideas are all considered old-fashioned if not downright bad, and everything is decided by who has the biggest mound of cash.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I think it’s more likely you just didn’t notice it as much then. As a history buff, I’m convinced this stuff has been going on forever.

      1. Onlooker

        And the biggest difference is that we’ve allowed/encouraged govt power to grow and therefore moneyed interests to influence that increased power. But too many people still think it’s the money and not the power, and that they can somehow reform that power to not be influenced. Foolish and absurd.

        And, of course, the game of politics and influence has gotten so much more sophisticated so it’s hard to nail down. They’re slippery little sons of bitches.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I’ve tried making that point to my big-goverment-loving pals many times. Give government more power, and there’s more reason to bribe those in power. Nobody bribes people who can’t rig the game.

      2. Teech

        Yea, corruption isn’t new to our generation. There is a reason why we have regulations today governing ethics in business. And it’s not because everyone was honorable back in the day.

  6. Lori Miller

    Obama should Just tell people to get a blood pressure monitor if they’re worried. Can’t the government find something more important to deal with, like people who have to get a ride from a friend to go to the grocery store, or hair braiders braiding hair without any training or license? Oh wait, they’re already on those.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I believe the most important issue facing the nation today is which bathroom people are allowed to use.

  7. Firebird

    Again, they look at sodium in all of its forms and not table salt. I recall in my science class in middle school, they describe it this way. “NaCl, sodium and chlorine, two elements on the periodic table that, when eaten separate, can be lethal, but when combined, forms HARMLESS table salt.”

    They lump table salt in with the other sodiums used in processing and it is plain incorrect.

    I recall a book written in 1996 — a diet book — that suggested, for taste satiety, you needed foods at every meal that provided the following: Sweetness, bitterness, sour and salty.

    1. Walter Bushell

      The Chinese use five flavors “sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and acrid (sometimes called pungent or spicy”

      Chinese doesn’t translate well into junior languages like English.

      Schisandra is famous for including all five flavors.

      “The Heart loves the bitter flavor.

  8. HB Desiato

    That recent salt study I read (can’t remember which) only ended up stating that people with high blood pressure who were already consuming too much salt were the only ones to benefit from reduced sodium intake. The media went with the nonsensical headlines that we all should reduce our salt intake.

    Just a warning about your A and B logic – it’s not that simple. The statistics arguments are beyond me but they do exist and then there’s this, a caution/differing opinion on whether the lack of correlation proves lack of causation.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I agree with what Chris wrote, but he’s mostly referring to under-powered (not a large enough sample) or poorly designed studies. When we see no correlation between salt intake and cardiovascular disease in multiple studies involving thousands of people, I feel safe saying no correlation means no causation.

  9. Bob Niland

    Gary Taubes has also written on salt lately, at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/opinion/sunday/we-only-think-we-know-the-truth-about-salt.html

    Separately, there is also the issue of what salt to use. I recommend a coarse mined (ancient sea) salt with a credible provenance and for which a complete trace analysis is available. This is apt to be a pink Himalayan. Grind it yourself.

    Salt from modern sea water is problematic.

    If minimally processed, it’s going to contain any pollutants that don’t evaporate (long list). I lately looked at one of the top sea salt brands, and observed incomplete trace analysis and non-denial handwaving on the contaminant issue.

    If processed, the former sea salt likely has low/no trace minerals, and is at some risk of containing adverse processing residues.

    Finely granulated salt from any source usually has anti-caking agents, perhaps wheat dextrin, unless specifically disclaimed.

    Iodized salt won’t have that iodine for long. Get your iodine by other means; but do get your iodine.

  10. Tom

    There are many good long term clinical studies regarding salt where they followed people for decades and measured the effects of salt consumption on health. Not really any correlation found.

    The major studies that show its bad for us threw out a lot of data. I remember reading one that basically said “If someone said they ate a lot of salt and they were healthy, we removed them from the study as obviously they’re lying”.

    I think the major “ah hah” is that many people eating high sodium diets are also eating mostly processed foods. So if something is causing health problems, its probably not the salt.

    Someone should also point out that running up a few flights of stairs or looking at a pretty woman also causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. So we should stop that sort of thing as well.

  11. Cym

    “A diet with excess salt doesn’t increase the risk at all if blood pressure is normal”, a study reported. In the future, perhaps this statement could be a diagnostic test for “prole/serf” brain. Wow… hopefully, “what is wrong with this sentence” will be part of your country’s school curriculum Tom…

  12. Sue D

    I live in the Goiter belt. Morton’s Iodized Salt is the only salt I use. When I was in grade school in the 50’s, we were actually given a chocolate flavored “goiter pill” once a week with our little carton of whole milk and half a graham cracker at morning snack because the government realized the effect of living in a region without any iodine in the soil was thyroid disease. In 3rd grade, Iodized salt was introduced and our “special treat” was discontinued.

    It’s easy to be too cool about the rarified types of salt now available, but goiters are now nearly nonexistent in the Great Lakes region because of the use of plain old cheap iodized salt.

      1. Firebird

        I was going to pick up some iodized table salt this morning at Aldi’s but put it back on the shelf when the second ingredient read “dextrose”.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          You got me curious, so I looked it up. Apparently dextrose is added (at a rate of 40 milligrams per 100 grams, or 0.04%) to stabilize the potassium iodide.

          1. Walter Bushell

            If that is the actual amount, the dextrose is an irrelevant. Of curse, can we expect the manufactures to stick to that?

  13. Linda

    Great post! As usual, I know why I read your posts BEFORE I read the news. Today (Jun 20th) CBS.com had a segment on salt. The attached video featured a very pretty gastroenterologist spouting all the outdated and totally useless research about the harm salt does to the human body. Of course, she ended up saying that some government regulation of salt would be good, dontcha know?


    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I suspect many regulators know taxing salt won’t do any good. I also suspect they don’t care, because they want the revenue, not the drop in salt consumption.

  14. Kristin

    My big ah ha moment was a few years ago when I was meticulously recording all my food intake which was all natural foods, no processed foods, on the government web site. I didn’t add in any salt that I added to the food so the tool should have assumed it was only the naturally occurring sodium. It showed that every day I was more than twice what they thought I should be consuming (1500 mg.) I realized that I was being set up. Eating a low starch high fat diet I no longer had blood pressure issues and quit my medication. Clearly something was amiss.

  15. Mike

    Actually, people who start Keto diets often complain of the “Keto flu” which is a tired, listless, fuzzy-brained, feeling faint, ordeal. The treatment is to consume electrolytes; sodium, potassium, magnesium, but generally it’s the sodium that does the trick.


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