Friday, February 27, 2004

A pinch of salt

British food manufacturers and supermarkets have agreed to reduce the salt content in many of their products, in response to government pressure. High salt intake has been linked to high blood pressure, which in turn has been linked to coronary heart disease and strokes. Health officials argue that adults should consume no more than six grams of salt per day - and many convenience meals contain more than half a day's recommended intake in a single serving.

The link between salt intake and blood pressure is more controversial than government advice suggests. A recent report in the British Medical Journal concluded: 'Intensive interventions, unsuited to primary care or population prevention programmes, provide only small reductions in blood pressure and sodium excretion, and effects on deaths and cardiovascular events are unclear. Advice to reduce sodium intake may help people on antihypertensive drugs to stop their medication while maintaining good blood pressure control.'

In short, if you've already got high blood pressure, reducing salt intake might help your hypertension. However, to achieve even these small effects would require large drops in salt intake.

It is easy to forget that salt is crucial to our existence. David Blaine could survive for 44 days without food - but not without salt. Excess salt is not a problem for healthy adults. If we have consumed too much, our kidneys remove it from our blood. If salt is such a big problem, how can it have played a central role in the flavouring and preservation of food for thousands of years?

The kind of reductions proposed by the food industry will almost certainly have no effect at all - except to make our food taste a little more boring, and reinforce the myth that what we eat is slowly killing us

Manufacturers in last-minute deal to cut salt in food, Daily Telegraph, 27 February 2004

Systematic review of long term effects of advice to reduce dietary salt in adults, British Medical Journal, 21 September 2002 [pdf, 320KB]

First published on Spiked's Don't panic page

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