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Dietary Guidelines

The Great Salt Wars:
How Much Is Too Much?

Don't blame the shaker; blame the can, box and drive-through for all that sodium

salt shaker

— Enigma/Alamy

On Tuesday the Department of Agriculture issued new preliminary dietary guidelines, including lowering the recommended maximum daily intake of salt from 2,300 mg to 1,500 mg. In 2005, the lower figure was recommended for African Americans, people with high blood pressure and middle-age and older adults.

Because 70 percent of the U.S. population falls into one of those categories, the government panel of experts extended the recommendation to the general population.

Henney and others, such as the Washington, D.C., consumer advocate group Center for Science in the Public Interest, say voluntary efforts by industry aren’t enough. The government should set mandatory limits on how much salt can be added to packaged and restaurant food.

Others strongly disagree. “I think we’re overreacting to the dangers of salt. I don’t think we need to put all of the U.S. on a sodium-restricted diet,” says nutrition expert Judith S. Stern of the University of California, Davis, and coauthor of a study last year that questioned the scientific reasoning behind the campaign against salt.

The study, published in October in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, examined sodium consumption studies from 30 countries, as well as research on humans’ innate salt appetite.

The researchers found that, in general, the human body self-regulates its salt intake, keeping it within a safe range and excreting the excess.

Salt-sensitive

Of course, some people are salt-sensitive, Stern notes, and consuming too much salt causes their blood pressure to rise. “Those people should see a doctor,” she notes.

“But if you ask me whether sodium is really an important medical issue, I’d say obesity is my top priority. If you’re overweight and your blood pressure is high, losing weight is going to have much more of an effect” than just cutting back on salt.

Cardiologist Edward M. Geltman, M.D., director of the heart failure program at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, takes a middle stance. “If you have normal blood pressure, no heart disease or heart failure, you probably can be reasonably careful about your salt intake,” he says.

But people with borderline high blood pressure “in the high 120s and 130s, need to be careful.” He warns those patients to avoid canned foods, fast food and Asian foods that are high in salt and MSG.

Treating people with high blood pressure can become very expensive, he notes. “It makes sense as public health policy to have people take care of their sodium consumption so that we keep our health costs lower.”

And while he says he’s not averse to government regulation, he thinks better food labels and more education is a more effective tactic. “To regulate how much salt can be added to a pizza is going too far.”

Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the Bulletin.

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