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Biggest Study Yet Shows the Dangers of War on Salt

In addition to being national cherry cobbler day, May 17th is also World Hypertension Day; an initiative started by the World Hypertension League (WHL) in 2005, with the goal of raising awareness about the blood pressure disorder. Hypertension is a dangerous condition, affecting nearly 40 percent of adults worldwide and putting them at greater risk for heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. However, groups like the World Hypertension League continue to push the message that lowering dietary salt is the primary means by which people can reduce their risk of developing chronically elevated blood pressure. Yet, as the bombshell results of one of the longest-running health studies indicate, that strategy might not only be wrong, but also dangerous.

The current dietary guidelines, prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, recommend adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. That number is far south of the 3,400 mg Americans consume on average and for the last three decades, government agencies, along with allied health organizations like WHL, the American Heart Association, and the World Health Organization, have been doing everything in their power to get our salt intake in line with their recommendations.

The problem, as CEI’s recent study, Shaking up the Conventional Wisdom on Salt found, is that the scientific basis for this salt-focused approach never existed. In fact, a growing body of research indicates that for most people, abiding by the government’s sodium recommendation is linked with worse health. The latest results of the Framingham Offspring Study affirm that it is long-past time health bodies refocus hypertension-reduction efforts on other factors.

The Framingham Heart Study began in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1948. By detailing the habits and health changes of the town’s people over time, researchers hoped to glean an understanding of how diet affects health. In a shocking revelation, the latest results of the study (now in its third generation) found that for the more than 2,600 individuals followed over 16 years, lower salt diets were not associated with lower blood pressure.

What the Framingham researchers did find was that people consuming an average level of sodium (higher than the recommended limit) were the least at risk of developing hypertension. Furthermore, the Framingham study concluded (as did the CEI study also highlighted) that potassium intake, along with calcium and magnesium, was associated with lower blood pressure. The people who had the lowest blood pressure in the study were those consuming an average of 3,717 mg of sodium and 3,211 mg of potassium a day.

"I hope that this research will help refocus the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans on the importance of increasing intakes of foods rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium for the purpose of maintaining a healthy blood pressure,” Lynn L. Moore, one of the Framingham authors, said. A stronger statement would be that continuing to tell everyone that they should reduce their sodium intake to lower blood pressure and improve health is irresponsible. Furthermore, that our government health agencies continue to spend time and money spreading this misinformation and pushing policies to force people to comply with their groundless sodium experiment borders on criminal.

While some people might benefit by limiting their intake of salt, an increasing body of evidence indicates that this approach is not appropriate for most people. If advocates truly want to improve public health they need to start developing recommendations based on actual evidence and give individuals the information they and their doctors need to figure out what strategy works best for them. As with the now-debunked recommendations on dietary cholesterol and fat, the sodium-hypertension myth appears to, thankfully, be on the way out. History, and consumers, will not look kindly on organizations that continue to cling to their unjustified war on salt.