“Salt,” an unknown wit once said, “is what makes things taste bad when it isn’t in them.” In that sense, government nutrition nannies have spent decades urging Americans to make their food taste bad.
In June 2016, the Food and Drug Administration issued proposed guidelines to the food industry to reduce the amount of sodium in many prepared foods. The agency, noting that the average American eats about 3,400 mg of sodium daily, wants to cut that back to only 2,300 mg. That is basically the amount of sodium in one teaspoon of salt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention similarly advises that “most Americans should consume less sodium” because “excess sodium can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart disease and stroke.”
There’s one problem: Evidence has been gathering for years that government salt consumption guidelines might well kill more people than they save.
The research does suggest that some subset of Americans may be especially sensitive to salt and would benefit from consuming less. Among those are folks with ancestors from Sub-Saharan Africa. But for most people, the risk lies elsewhere.
A 2014 meta-analysis of more than two dozen relevant studies, published in the American Journal of Hypertension, concluded that risk of death appeared to be lowest among individuals consuming between 2,565 mg and 4,796 mg of sodium per day, with higher rates of death above and below that consumption range. As noted above, the FDA itself reports that average daily consumption is 3,400 mg — right in the middle of the ideal range.
In April, a new study by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine, who followed more than 2,600 people for 16 years, once again debunked the dire claims about salt. “We saw no evidence that a diet lower in sodium had any long-term beneficial effects on blood pressure,” said lead researcher Lynn Moore. “Our findings add to growing evidence that current recommendations for sodium intake may be misguided.”
In fact, the authors found that study participants who consumed less than 2,500 mg a day had higher blood pressure than those who consumed more.
They also pointed out that other research has also found that people who consume very high or very low amounts are both at greater cardiovascular risk.
“Those with the lowest risk,” they noted, “had sodium intakes in the middle, which is the range consumed by most Americans.”
Ronald Bailey is a science correspondent for the libertarian magazine Reason, where this column was posted.
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