Sprinkling Doubt: Taking Sodium Skeptics with a Pinch of Salt

Sprinkling Doubt: Taking Sodium Skeptics with a Pinch of Salt
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Is the sodium debate a legitimate scientific disagreement or a “controversy” manufactured by industry?

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For decades, a sometimes furious battle has raged among scientists over the extent to which elevated salt consumption contributes to death, with one camp calling it a public health hazard that requires vigorous attack, and another claiming the risks of dietary salt excess are exaggerated, even to the point of calling sodium reduction “the largest delusion in the history of preventive medicine.” The other side calls this denialism ethically irresponsible, especially when millions of lives are at stake every year.

To describe two sides of the debate may be falling into the trap of false equivalency, though.  As the superhero-sounding, “World Hypertension League” points out, there is a strong scientific consensus that reducing salt saves lives, and like the climate change debate, most authorities are on one side, with only the industry affected, and their paid consultants, and a few dissenting scientists on the other.

Nearly all government appointed bodies and nutrition experts who have considered the evidence have recommended we cut collectively our salt intake about in half, described as extreme by those defending the industry. After all, just a small fraction of Americans actually get their sodium intake that low. Therefore, the salt skeptics say, the human experience for very low levels of Na consumption is extremely sparse.

Extremely sparse? The reality is the exact opposite. The human experience is living for millions upon millions of years without Cheetos or a salt shaker in sight. We evolved to be salt-conserving machines, and when we’re plunked down into snack food and KFC country, we develop high blood pressure.  But in the few populations left that don’t eat salt, that continue to eat much as we had for millions of years, our leading killer risk factor, hypertension, is practically non-existent. And, when you take people with out of control hypertension and bring them back down to the sodium levels we were designed to eat, the ravages of the disease can even be reversed. So, why is there still a debate?

If salt hidden in food kills millions of people around the world, why are efforts to cut dietary salt being met with fierce resistance? Well, salt is big business for the processed food and meat industry and so, according to the head of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on Nutrition, we get the familiar story. Just like the tobacco industry spent decades trying to manufacture doubt and confuse the public, the salt industry does the same, but the controversy is fake. The evidence for salt reduction is clear and consistent. Most of the “contradictory research” comes from scientists linked to the salt industry. However, it takes skill to spot the subterfuge because the industry is smart enough to stay behind the scenes, covertly paying for studies designed to downplay the risks. All they have to do is manufacture just enough doubt to keep the controversy alive.

The likes of the World Hypertension League have been described as a mere pop-gun against the weapons-grade firepower of salt-encrusted industries who look disdainfully at the do-gooder health associations who erect roadblocks on the path to profits. Lest we forget, notes this editorial in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, high blood pressure is big business for the drug industry too, whose blood pressure billions might be threatened should we cut back on salt. If we went sodium-free and eliminated the scourge of hypertension, not only would big pharma suffer, what about doctors? The #1 diagnosis adults see doctors with is high blood pressure, nearly 40 million doctor visits a year, and so maybe even the BMW industry might be benefiting from keeping the salt debate alive.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to ABPMedia via Flickr.

For decades, a sometimes furious battle has raged among scientists over the extent to which elevated salt consumption contributes to death, with one camp calling it a public health hazard that requires vigorous attack, and another claiming the risks of dietary salt excess are exaggerated, even to the point of calling sodium reduction “the largest delusion in the history of preventive medicine.” The other side calls this denialism ethically irresponsible, especially when millions of lives are at stake every year.

To describe two sides of the debate may be falling into the trap of false equivalency, though.  As the superhero-sounding, “World Hypertension League” points out, there is a strong scientific consensus that reducing salt saves lives, and like the climate change debate, most authorities are on one side, with only the industry affected, and their paid consultants, and a few dissenting scientists on the other.

Nearly all government appointed bodies and nutrition experts who have considered the evidence have recommended we cut collectively our salt intake about in half, described as extreme by those defending the industry. After all, just a small fraction of Americans actually get their sodium intake that low. Therefore, the salt skeptics say, the human experience for very low levels of Na consumption is extremely sparse.

Extremely sparse? The reality is the exact opposite. The human experience is living for millions upon millions of years without Cheetos or a salt shaker in sight. We evolved to be salt-conserving machines, and when we’re plunked down into snack food and KFC country, we develop high blood pressure.  But in the few populations left that don’t eat salt, that continue to eat much as we had for millions of years, our leading killer risk factor, hypertension, is practically non-existent. And, when you take people with out of control hypertension and bring them back down to the sodium levels we were designed to eat, the ravages of the disease can even be reversed. So, why is there still a debate?

If salt hidden in food kills millions of people around the world, why are efforts to cut dietary salt being met with fierce resistance? Well, salt is big business for the processed food and meat industry and so, according to the head of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on Nutrition, we get the familiar story. Just like the tobacco industry spent decades trying to manufacture doubt and confuse the public, the salt industry does the same, but the controversy is fake. The evidence for salt reduction is clear and consistent. Most of the “contradictory research” comes from scientists linked to the salt industry. However, it takes skill to spot the subterfuge because the industry is smart enough to stay behind the scenes, covertly paying for studies designed to downplay the risks. All they have to do is manufacture just enough doubt to keep the controversy alive.

The likes of the World Hypertension League have been described as a mere pop-gun against the weapons-grade firepower of salt-encrusted industries who look disdainfully at the do-gooder health associations who erect roadblocks on the path to profits. Lest we forget, notes this editorial in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, high blood pressure is big business for the drug industry too, whose blood pressure billions might be threatened should we cut back on salt. If we went sodium-free and eliminated the scourge of hypertension, not only would big pharma suffer, what about doctors? The #1 diagnosis adults see doctors with is high blood pressure, nearly 40 million doctor visits a year, and so maybe even the BMW industry might be benefiting from keeping the salt debate alive.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to ABPMedia via Flickr.

Doctor's Note

This is the second video in my new, in-depth series on the sodium “controversy.” See the first one at High Blood Pressure May Be a Choice.

For more on hypertension, see How to Prevent High Blood Pressure with Diet and How to Treat High Blood Pressure with Diet. But what if you already eat healthfully and still can’t get your pressures down? Try adding hibiscus tea (Hibiscus Tea vs. Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension) and ground flax seeds (Flax Seeds for Hypertension) to your diet, and make sure you’re exercising regularly (Longer Life Within Walking Distance).

If you cut down on salt won’t everything taste like cardboard? Your taste buds shift remarkably quick, as I discuss in Changing Our Taste Buds.

If you’re surprised about industry tactics to distort the balance of evidence, here are a few other poignant examples:

I’ve got more salt videos here!

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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