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New Research Calls Salt Guidelines Into Question

Study Suggests Reducing Sodium May Increase Unhealthy Blood Fats; Critics Say Study Is Flawed

Should the FDA Regulate Sodium in Food? continued...

The CDC says more than 90% of Americans eat more sodium than government guidelines recommend.

Public health experts say high sodium diets are one reason that about one in three American adults has blood pressure levels that are higher than normal.

High blood pressure increases the risk for killers like heart attacks and strokes.

The FDA doesn't regulate the amount of sodium in food. But in recent months a chorus of public health groups, including the Institute of Medicine and the American Public Health Association, has called on the agency to step in to force food manufacturers to lower the amount of sodium they add to prepared and processed foods.

Last week, in a news release, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the high amounts of salt in processed foods "the single deadliest ingredient in the food supply, contributing to the premature deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year."

But food industry representatives and some independent scientists say salt has become a red herring in heart disease prevention. They say calls to regulate it aren't being based on sound science.

"All the figures that you see that are associated with the benefits of salt reduction are not really benefits associated with salt reduction, they are benefits associated with blood pressure reduction," says Morton Satin, vice president of research at the Salt Institute, which is based in Alexandria, Va.

Satin agrees that reducing high blood pressure is important for health. But he says there are better ways to do it besides cutting out salt.

"There is an impact of reducing salt that is beyond simple blood pressure reduction," Satin says. "Using salt as the main lifestyle means of reducing blood pressure does have negative consequences, and that's really the issue."

Graudal says that's exactly the point. Since doctors don't really understand all the health effects of lowering dietary sodium, they say it's premature to be considering regulation of sodium in the food supply.

Should People Worry About Salt, or Not?

Experts who reviewed the study for WebMD say its conclusions are flawed because it relies too heavily on small, short-term studies.

In some cases people in the studies that were included in the review were only on low-sodium diets for a few days.

"This is a key issue. When there is a large, abrupt reduction in sodium, it takes time to acclimate," says Lawrence Appel, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, epidemiology, and international health at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. 

"It's very convenient for somebody to summarize a complex area in one paper. But the truth is in the details, and much of that is obscured by the fact that many of these studies are poorly done," says Appel, who is also a spokesman for the American Heart Association.

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