For years government dietary advice has urged Americans to avoid salt.
For example, in 1999 a federal government publication declared that scientific evidence had established that the prevalence of high blood pressure was associated with levels of sodium consumption. The correlation between salt and high blood pressure has since been taken as gospel.
“The more salt people consume, the greater the number of people will develop high blood pressure,” Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an activist group, told a congressional subcommittee in 1981.
Then-Rep. Al Gore shared a somewhat inconvenient truth with the committee, noting during the same hearing that the science on salt was unsettled.
“The fact is,” Gore said, “there is some disagreement in the scientific community… as to the effect of salt on all Americans.”
Still, Gore may as well have been talking ManBearPig. No one in government really viewed his salt comment as serious, and the federal government has continued to beat the anti-salt drum for decades.
That drum has only grown louder. In 2008 the health department of then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a “voluntary” National Salt Reduction Initiative.
In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama called for food marketers to begin “revamping, or ramping up, your efforts to reformulate your products” and listed salt as one of the ingredients that food makers should limit.
The origins of claims about the risks of salt go back thousands of years. In his 2011 book on the history of salt consumption—Salt—author Mark Kurlansky writes that one early Chinese text, written nearly 2,000 years ago, warned of a link between excess salt consumption and high blood pressure. But Kurlansky also noted that more recent research – conducted within the most recent millennia – suggests such a link may be weak or nonexistent.
WHAT’S THE LATEST ON SALT?
The fact is: the notion that salt consumption is patently unhealthy for most Americans appears more antiquated with each passing year.
For example, a 2011 Scientific American article argued that the government’s war on salt has been misguided and was more likely to reward us with lifeless French fries than it was to make us live longer. In the article, science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer takes politicians to task for basing sodium policies on “no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure.”
Also in 2011 a study of salt found “no evidence to suggest that salt reduction did the trial participants any good or any harm.”
In 2012, author and journalist Gary Taubes, who’d questioned anti-salt efforts for years, penned a New York Times opinion piece that helped bolster the case against anti-salt recommendations. Taubes noted that the federal government had spent years and millions of dollars funding studies intended to establish “the link between salt and blood pressure” and that “those studies have singularly failed to make the evidence [of such a link] any more conclusive.”
More recently research has found that failure to consume enough salt can be deadly. A 2014 study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, reported on in the Wall Street Journal, “found that those who consumed fewer than 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day had a 27% higher risk of death or a serious event such as a heart attack or stroke in that period than those whose intake was estimated at 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams.”
Americans today consume an average of 3,400 mg of salt each day, or well within the healthy range identified in the study. Official recommendations, on the other hand, have urged Americans to consume roughly 1,500 to 2,300 mg—or an amount that the New England Journal of Medicine study concludes greatly increases our risk of death, heart attack or stroke. As a result, the study’s author, professor Andrew Mente, declared that current salt guidelines lack any valid scientific basis.
These studies provide mounting evidence that most Americans shouldn’t continue cutting salt. Luckily, government policies have begun to reflect the science.
Well, actually, no they haven’t.
THE EXPERTS ARE LAGGING
Just this year the federal government’s already problematic dietary advice urged Americans to—you guessed it—eat less salt. “For sodium, emphasis should be placed on expanding industry efforts to reduce the sodium content of foods and helping consumers understand how to flavor unsalted foods with spices and herbs,” reads the final report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which helps shape overall federal dietary policy.
And last month, New York City’s health department—the same one that launched the “voluntary” National Salt Reduction Initiative in 2008—began enforcing the nation’s first mandatory restaurant salt warning labels. The same city health department that had touted its voluntary efforts in 2008 and subsequent years now boasted New York was “the first city in the nation to require chain restaurants to post warning labels next to menu items that contain high levels of sodium.”
Thankfully, New York is also the first city to be sued for doing so. The National Restaurant Association filed suit against the city to overturn the mandate, arguing—rightly—that the rules are based on lousy science. The group called the salt mandate “arbitrary and capricious” and referred to the rules, which apply only to large chain restaurants, as “filled with irrational exclusions and nonsensical loopholes.”
Meanwhile the FDA is considering its own rules to restrict salt content in packaged foods. Doing so would make the voluntary efforts Mrs. Obama spoke of in 2010 mandatory. For good measure, the activist Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the FDA last year for failing to establish mandatory salt limits.
The science on salt might not be settled. But it’s becoming clearer that policies pertaining to salt reflect old science at best and bad science at worst.
Baylen J. Linnekin is author of a forthcoming book on food, regulation, and sustainability and an adjunct professor at George Mason University Law School, where he teaches Food Law & Policy.