Let’s Put a Stop to the War on Salt

First Lady Michelle Obama has been lobbying strongly this year for food manufacturers to reduce the sodium content of their products. 

Her efforts scored a major victory last month when the Council of Better Business Bureaus rolled out new criteria for reducing the sodium, sugar, and fat in children’s food and beverages. Seventeen companies are participating in the initiative, including the Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, and Kraft Foods.

While this will mean higher food prices as producers reformulate their recipes , we are led to believe that this will be a small price to pay for longer lives and better health. However, claims that sodium poses a significant health risk may be unfounded. 

Health writer Melinda Wenner Moyer, in an article in Scientific American in July called for an end to the “war on salt,” as there is no conclusive evidence to warrant sweeping and intrusive mandates to reduce or eliminate salt from foods. Moyer cites a 2011 study that found “no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure.” And scientists with the European Project on Genes in Hypertension recently published results of another study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting a inverse correlation between sodium consumption and heart-disease deaths!

Anti-salt crusaders have long relied on a single study from the 1970s, in which scientist Lewis Dahl found salt to cause high blood pressure in rats. The trouble with Dahl’s study is that he fed the rats the human equivalent of 500 grams of sodium a day. A human would have to eat nearly 1,000 McDonald’s hamburgers a day to achieve the same result!

Dahl also failed to differentiate between population trends. According to Moyer, “People living in countries with a high salt consumption—such as Japan—also tend to have high blood pressure and more strokes. 

But as a paper pointed out several years later in the American Journal of Hypertension, scientists had little luck finding such associations when they compared sodium intakes within populations, which suggested that genetics or other cultural factors might be the culprit” [emphasis in original].

Dahl made the common fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation. He and his supporters have failed to control or account for myriad additional variables. Without more certitude, bureaucrats have no basis to either make claims about sodium posing a threat to health or place burdensome regulations on producers.

Yet, many food manufacturers are working to preempt regulation by reducing the sodium content in their products at considerable cost. Those costs are then passed on to consumers—many of whom will simply forgo the less salty, blander versions of those food products, as Campbell’s reversal of its decision to lower many of its soups’ salt content due to weak sales indicates.

This highlights a larger issue: regulators basing their rules on estimates and percentages. Moyer points to a study that “estimated that cutting salt intake by about 35 percent would save at least 44,000 American lives per year.” 

Yet people are not percentages. Do we know that there are 44,000 people at death’s door? No, we do not. That is because these people do not exist; they are believed to exist and predicted to exist by experts. But, as Moyer says, “such estimates are not evidence, either; they are conjecture.”

Each person’s individual risk of heart disease is based on many factors, including lifestyle, genetics, and access to health care. Diet, including sodium consumption, is only one of many factors. 

It is foolhardy for politicians to lump all individual cases together and make prescriptions for society at large that will limit individual choice and raise our cost of living. The European Project on Genes scientists agreed, noting their conclusions “do also not support the current recommendations of a generalized and indiscriminate reduction of salt intake at the population level.”

The war on salt is one more way in which politicians are trying to get between you, your children, and your doctor—in this case by removing options from store shelves. Moyer is correct to call for an end to the war on salt—but that is just a skirmish in the larger fight over consumer liberty.