Sodium: A Round-Up of Recent News

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Since Mayor Bloomberg started going after salt, my inbox is overflowing with commentary on all sides of the salt debates.

First a review of the research:

FoodNavigator.com has published a series of pieces on the importance of salt reduction to health and the implications of doing so for the food industry:

    • January 15: a summary of a Japanese study linking high-salt diets to cancer
    • January 26: a review of studies on several conditions affected by salt intake
    • January 27: a discussion of the economic effects of reducing salt intake
    • January 28: an overview of how salt issues are viewed in Europe
    • January 29: a discussion of the purported benefits of sea salt
    • Also on January 29: a report on Kellogg's Europe's salt-reduction initiative
    • February 1: a review of the arguments over the science
    • February 2: an account of how Ireland is dealing with the salt issue

Jane Brody of the New York Times also weighed in on the benefits of salt reduction.

Salt in restaurant meals: On January 31, an intrepid New York Times reporter had the bright idea of sending some restaurant meals off to a lab to test for sodium. Ouch. A large bowl of clam chowder had 3100 milligrams, two slices of pizza came in at 2240 milligrams, steak with creamed spinach had 2660 mg, and Katz's corned beef with pickles had 4490 mg. Stroke, anyone? No wonder it's so hard to avoid sodium.

The "leave salt alone" crowd: JAMA has just run an editorial from Michael Alderman arguing that salt reduction does no good, might do harm, and should be tested in clinical trials before moving forward. And Greg Miller of the National Dairy Council sent me this piece from Dr. Judith Stern of U.C. Davis, a member of the advisory board of the Salt Institute, saying much the same thing.

These are old arguments. What I find remarkable about them is that despite such individual opinions, every committee that has ever reviewed the research has consistently come to the same conclusion: salt reduction is a good idea. Are the committees delusional? I don't see how. As for clinical trials, how could anyone do one? There is already so much salt in the American diet that it will be hard to find a population of people able (even if willing) to reduce salt intake to a level where differences in health will be measurable. The research disputes are difficult to sort out, and I don't see how they can be easily resolved.

Under these circumstances, you could take your pick of whose research interpretation to believe—if you actually had a choice. But you don't. If you eat processed food, or if you eat in restaurants, you are eating a lot more salt than you need.

I'd like the default to be a lower salt environment. Doctors Alderman and Stern can always add more salt to their food. I have no way of removing it from mine.

Stay tuned. We will be hearing a lot more about this one.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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