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Salt: the single most harmful substance in food?

Salt: so good, but so bad?

Salt: so good, but so bad?

Salt rocks. 

It makes everything taste delicious.

It has also been called "the single most harmful substance in the food supply".

A new paper by Harvard attributes excess salt consumption to 1.65 million deaths annually worldwide. 

While it was a "herculean effort" to collate the data from 66 countries, its findings have limitations. 

"Our modelling cannot prove that sodium restriction reduces cardiovascular mortality," the paper's authors acknowledge in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Limitations aside, there is no doubt we consume too much salt.

The average Australian eats nearly nine times the amount of salt humans need.  

Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO, says a five-year study into more than 120 illness-prevention measures named salt reduction as one of the most effective to save lives in years to come.

“Salt is linked to strokes, heart disease, high blood pressure, gastric ulcers, stomach cancer and more than 20 other health problems,” Ms Rechter said. 

So it would seem we simply need to pass on the salt, right?

Well, not necessarily. We need salt to survive.

A certain amount is needed for our body cells to function.

There is the equivalent of about seven tablespoons of table salt in a 50-kilogram person and it needs to be replenished as we pee and sweat it out each day.

But, there is a Goldilocks principle with salt. 

Too little or too much and we are in trouble.

And exactly how much is just right is arguable. 

"In the most general terms, getting less sodium [the problematic component of salt] in the diet lowers blood pressure," says the Harvard Medical school. "But how sodium reduction affects an individual depends on his or her genes, age, and medical conditions."

New studies, including the Harvard one, have attempted to detangle the complex salt-health relationship.

A second study, also published in NEJM, found those who consumed about half to one teaspoon of salt a day had "a lower risk of death and cardiovascular events than was either a higher or lower estimated level of intake". 

Interestingly, a diet rich in potassium (found in beans, bananas, dark leafy greens and even potatoes) seemed to counter the harmful effects of salt. 

A third study, which did not find a clear link between salt intake and blood pressure, found similar effects with potassium. 

The authors suggested that instead of an aggressive campaign for the public to reduce salt intake, recommending a potassium-rich diet might have greater health benefits.

"Taken together, these three articles highlight the need to collect high-quality evidence on both the risks and benefits of low-sodium diets," wrote University of Alabama vascular specialist Dr Suzanne Oparil in an op-ed in the NEJM.  

So while the experts work on the high-quality evidence, where does that leave the rest of us?

Spending a little less time with the shaker still, it seems.

"We need to reduce our salt intake by 30 per cent if we’re to reduce our risk of heart disease, Australia’s number one killer," says Dr Robert Grenfell, cardiovascular health director, National Heart Foundation of Australia. 

"Previous research has shown that by reducing our intake of sodium from processed foods by just 15 per cent over 10 years could stop 5800 heart attacks and 4900 strokes a year ...

"Most of us are trying to do the right thing by not adding salt to cooking or at the table but we’re still eating much more than we realise. Three-quarters of the salt we consume every day is hidden in the food we eat. Things like bread, canned food, breakfast cereals and pasta sauces."

96 comments so far

  • What a convenient finding for the sugar and flour sellers.

    Commenter
    AJPreston
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    August 18, 2014, 7:04AM
    • Couldn't agree more, well said!

      Commenter
      JCO
      Location
      SYDNEY
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 6:35AM
    • Yep. Big sugar fighting back after the wool being finally pulled from everyone's eyes.

      Commenter
      The brown note
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 7:23AM
    • +1

      Hey everyone, it's OK to eat banana bread from the local cafe. It's just banana + bread so it *must* be healthy.

      Commenter
      Des
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 8:07AM
    • As far as I can see, the only sugar industry that supported the research was the South Africa Sugar industry, all the other sponsors, and there were many, were pharmaceuticals or universities.

      Commenter
      Ian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 8:11AM
    • Exactly this is unresearched rubbish. I am not aware of a single piece of credible peer-reviewed academic research which proves salt is bad for you. I'm aware of loads about sugar and saturated fats. How is it that people living on a diet derived solely or largely from saltwater manage to live to 100?

      Commenter
      Peter
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 9:17AM
    • Perhaps if Peter read the fourth sentence of this article he would find a piece of credible, peer-reviewed academic research which indicates that excess salt is bad for you.

      As salt and sugar consumption are independent, you can reduce your salt intake without loading up on sugar. Or does this ruin someone's favourite conspiracy theory?

      Commenter
      Wayne
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 10:00AM
    • Why do you see this as some sort of conspiracy? The NEJM is one of the most respected medical journals in the world and the researchers appear to have come from Harvard, VicHealth and the University of Alabama, amongst others. What evidence do you have that they are deliberately trying to foist incorrect findings upon us? My GP has been telling me for several years to cut my salt intake. I thought it was fairly common knowledge that it can increase blood pressure etc and this is simply more evidence to support that.

      Commenter
      ken higgs
      Location
      syderney
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 10:17AM
    • Here are some of the studies @Peter:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_and_cardiovascular_disease

      Commenter
      Jerry
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 10:44AM
    • Everything seems to be 'unresearched rubbish' these days.

      I say go with your gut... Literally. If you like it, eat it. & don't stress about manipulative journos who get paid to spin 'rubbish' for no real reason.

      Commenter
      Kel
      Date and time
      August 19, 2014, 11:26AM

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