THE GREAT SALT MYTH

Salt

Salt Myth
Commercially manufactured iodized table salt is highly refined to remove impurities. Those impurities however, contain trace minerals our body needs. Anti-caking agents are added during the refining process for uniform pouring since the early 1900s. Table salt is 99% sodium chloride, and 1% trace minerals. Some advocates claim using Himalayan salt, sea salt, rock salt, black salt, pink salt, unicorn salt, is better than commercial iodized table salt because those salts contain necessary trace elements. That is true, but the amount of trace elements is negligible, and are readily obtained by the body from other foods.

The body needs the sodium component of salt – sodium chloride – but too much or too little can cause serious problems. Sodium makes up 40 percent of salt. If a food label lists sodium instead of salt, multiply the answer by 2.5 for an accurate picture of the salt content.

Medical authorities claim that people consume too much salt, and 75 percent of it is hidden in processed and packaged foods. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a maximum intake of no more than 2.3 grams or 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, or around 1 teaspoon, and preferably no more than 1,500 mg.

The body uses sodium to maintain fluid levels. A balance of fluid and sodium is necessary for the health of the heart, liver, and kidneys by regulating blood pressure. It is also a vital element in muscle, cell, neuron and nerve activity. However, excess sodium has been shown to overstimulate the immune system, suggesting a link with autoimmune diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, and allergies.

The chloride component of salt serves as an important electrolyte that regulates blood pH and pressure. Electrolytes are compounds, often salts, which dissociate into their ionic components in solvents like water. Chloride is also a part of the production of stomach acid (HCl). Humans excrete salt in the form of sweat and must replenish the loss of sodium and chloride through their diet.

Body electrolytes:

Sodium
Potassium
Chloride
Calcium
Magnesium
Phosphate
Bicarbonate

Effects of low sodium:

Addison disease
Blockage in the small intestine
Diarrhea and vomiting
Underactive thyroid
Osteoporosis
Kidney disease
Hypertension

The American Heart Association (AHA) states when there is too much sodium in the blood, it pulls more water into the bloodstream. As the volume of blood increases, the heart has to work harder to pump it around the body. In time, this can stretch the walls of the blood vessels, making them more susceptible to damage. High blood pressure also contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, leading to a greater risk of stroke and heart disease. The AHA suggests that people consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium – about 1 teaspoon a day – and more potassium, which is believed to lessen the negative effects of sodium.

THE MYTH DEBUNKED

Researchers have long believed that salt levels inside our bodies is easily controlled: when levels are too high, our brain is stimulated to make us thirsty. We drink more and excrete more urine, through which the body expels excess salt.

To gain insight into this process, a team led by Dr. Jens Titze at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, took the opportunity to study a group of men participating in a simulated space flight program between 2009 and 2011. The men were divided into groups and given 12 grams of salt per day, 9 g/day, and 6 g/day. The researchers collected all the men’s urine for testing.

The scientists were surprised to find that whatever the level of salt consumed, sodium was stored and released from the men’s bodies in roughly weekly and monthly patterns. The team uncovered similar rhythms for the hormones aldosterone, which regulates sodium excretion from the kidney, and glucocorticoids, which help regulate metabolism.

These results show that the body regulates its salt and water balance not only by releasing excess sodium in urine, but by actively retaining or releasing. The advantage of this mechanism is that long-term maintenance of body fluids isn’t as dependent on external water sources as once believed. The researchers found that the kidney conserves or releases water by balancing levels of sodium, potassium, and the waste product urea. A high salt diet increased glucocorticoid levels, causing muscle and liver to burn more energy to produce urea, which was then used in the kidney for water conservation. These salt-driven changes in metabolism may thus partly explain why high salt diets have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems that can result from the condition known as metabolic syndrome.

The July 8, 2011 issue of Scientific American stated:

For decades, policy makers have tried and failed to get Americans to eat less salt. In April 2010 the Institute of Medicine urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of salt that food manufacturers put into products; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already convinced 16 companies to do so voluntarily. But if the U.S. does conquer salt, what will we gain? Bland french fries, for sure. But a healthy nation? Not necessarily.

A meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension 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. In May, European researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the less sodium study subjects excreted in their urine—an excellent measure of prior consumption—the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease. These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous.

Fears over salt first surfaced more than a century ago. In 1904, French doctors reported that six of their subjects who had high blood pressure—a known risk factor for heart disease—were salt fiends. Worries escalated in the 1970s when Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Lewis Dahl claimed that he had “unequivocal” evidence that salt causes hypertension: he induced high blood pressure in rats by feeding them the human equivalent of 500 grams of sodium a day. (Today the average American consumes 3.4 grams of sodium, or 8.5 grams of salt, a day.)

Dahl also discovered population trends that continue to be cited as strong evidence of a link between salt intake and high blood pressure. 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. Nevertheless, in 1977 the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs released a report recommending that Americans cut their salt intake by 50 to 85 percent, based largely on Dahl’s work.

Scientific tools have become much more precise since then, but the correlation between salt intake and poor health has remained tenuous. Intersalt, a large study published in 1988, compared sodium intake with blood pressure in subjects from 52 international research centers and found no relationship between sodium intake and the prevalence of hypertension. In fact, the population that ate the most salt, about 14 grams a day, had a lower median blood pressure than the population that ate the least, about 7.2 grams a day. In 2004 the Cochrane Collaboration, an international, independent, not-for-profit health care research organization funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, published a review of 11 salt-reduction trials. Over the long-term, low-salt diets, compared to normal diets, decreased systolic blood pressure (the top number in the blood pressure ratio) in healthy people by 1.1 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 0.6 mmHg. That is like going from 120/80 to 119/79. The review concluded that “intensive interventions, unsuited to primary care or population prevention programs, provide only minimal reductions in blood pressure during long-term trials.” A 2003 Cochrane review of 57 shorter-term trials similarly concluded that “there is little evidence for long-term benefit from reducing salt intake.”

Studies that have explored the direct relationship between salt and heart disease have not fared much better. Among them, a 2006 American Journal of Medicine study compared the reported daily sodium intakes of 78 million Americans to their risk of dying from heart disease over the course of 14 years. It found that the more sodium people ate, the less likely they were to die from heart disease. And a 2007 study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology followed 1,500 older people for five years and found no association between urinary sodium levels and the risk of coronary vascular disease or death. For every study that suggests that salt is unhealthy, another does not.

CONCLUSION

Food producers continue to add salt to products to increase flavor and shelf life. A deliberate ploy to make people sick? That is highly questionable. Numerous controlled scientific studies done over the last 60 years show almost no correlation between high salt intake, heart disease, and high blood pressure. What is needed are government-sponsored controlled clinical trials to obtain irrefutable data on people who follow low-salt/high-salt diets over time. Why these studies are not done? Too much political clout is wielded by anti-salt self-proclaimed health groups who have managed to convince governments and doctors on the myth that consuming too much salt is unhealthy. Debunking that myth would destroy reputations and government funding that keeps promoting this myth. So, how much salt should a person consume per day? It obviously varies according to activities each person carries out. Given that the human body has demonstrated mechanisms to expel excess salt, individuals should not be overly concerned with current medical hype that eating bland food is healthy.

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