The cover of the March 15th issue of Time magazine in 1982 captured the beginning of America’s current war on salt. The Time cover story, “Salt: A New Villain?” seemed to ask a question that Americans readily answered with very little data at the time. Society apparently needs a food villain. Is it just me or does it feel like every other week we learn about the harmful impact of some previously considered healthy food (or the opposite – something that “used to be” bad for us is suddenly the new miracle food)? Salt has the dubious distinction of being the villain for over 30 years. But how many of us actually know the facts about salt/sodium? If you are a school nutrition professional, it is likely that you have the general picture despite what the media mantra touts. This article is for the rest of us who may still think salt is the root of almost all food evil. SPOILER ALERT: It’s not…
A Lesson on Sodium
During a general session at the 2015 School Nutrition Association (SNA) Legislative Action Conference (LAC) titled “Sodium Intake: Too much, Too Little, or Just Right?”, Dr. Robert P. Heaney set out to set the record straight. Dr. Heaney agrees with SNA’s position to call for a halt in the implementation of further sodium restrictions in school meals. He was emphatic that research does not support that sodium reduction is beneficial to health.
Admittedly, much of the presentation was relatively technical for those of us without a strong nutrition background. Therefore, like any decent blogger, I had to do a bit more homework to complete this post (if you would like to follow my study plan, “Salt and our Health” provides a comprehensive, if a little long, place to start). The Time magazine article mentioned above references a study using primitive natives of the Brazilian rainforest with low blood pressure – not exactly relatable to Western subjects. While this study – and headline – likely helped sell more magazines, it was far from the whole story. Dr. Heaney’s presentation drove home the point that, like anything else in life, there should be balance when it comes to sodium intake. Studies show that too much or too little sodium is harmful for our health. WHAT? You mean that there is such a thing as too little sodium?
Too little sodium can cause your body to compensate in other ways to maintain your blood pressure (remember that blood pressure is what facilitates blood flow throughout your body – which is a very good thing since it keeps you alive!). This physiological response is similar to an adrenaline surge which is needed for a short time in extreme circumstances. While it is good that our bodies are equipped to compensate for moderately low blood pressure, it should be the exception, not the rule. Dr. Heaney helped drive this point home by asking the audience if anyone would like to live with increased adrenaline all of the time – didn’t hear any takers in the rather large group (there were over 900 SNA members in attendance).
So is a reduction of sodium a bad thing?
It all depends on the starting point. If someone is sensitive to sodium or has high blood pressure, then a reduction of sodium might be helpful. For someone whose body is not sensitive to sodium and is taking in a moderate level of sodium a reduction may actually be harmful. In my mind I relate this to weight loss which is not advisable in every circumstance – people who are already thin may damage their bodies by losing too much weight while someone who is overweight can benefit from shedding pounds.
I was surprised to learn that in the studies cited, individuals with the lowest sodium intake actually had the highest morbidity rate from cardiovascular events. Of course, the studies were all done on adults – thankfully – but why impose on kids what is not healthy even for adults?
Dr. Heaney also provided data relating to the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Interestingly, the original clinical studies for this diet were high in fruits and vegetables as well as low in non-fat dairy but did not restrict sodium intake. The increase in potassium and calcium has a greater impact on hypertension than the amount of sodium. It is worth noting that many online versions of the DASH diet suggest reduced sodium but I get the feeling this has more to do with society’s “conventional wisdom” than scientific proof.
Salt makes a difference
Dr. Heaney reminded us that salt can play a major role in how foods taste overall. We all know that salt can make things taste saltier. But did you know that salt can also enhance the sweetness and decrease bitterness in the way things taste? I would venture to say that every restaurant in the country has salt shakers on the table even when they are known for exceptionally tasty food. Why do you suppose that is? As adults the vast majority of us do not want to eat bland foods and further, we are accustomed to “salting.” If we don’t want to eat bland food, why would anyone think kids would? It certainly doesn’t help that we constantly set the example that salt tastes good by reaching for the shaker.
Salt also plays a big role in food preservation. Before modern refrigeration and other food preservation techniques were common, salt was used as the primary method of food preservation. Although science and technology have improved greatly, salt is still widely used in conjunction with other techniques to increase the shelf life of many foods. When salt is reduced the risk for toxin formation may be higher especially in food like cheeses. Chapter 4 of the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States” does a pretty good job of explaining the science behind all of this in relatively plain English if you are interested in digging deeper.
So why would Congress want kids to suffer?
My belief is that nobody, regardless of what you might think of politicians, wants kids to suffer. The current meal guidelines are based on the IOM recommendations, which was the best information available at the time of passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. In the past 4 years since the passing of HHFKA there has been a great deal more research relating to the impacts of sodium in our diets. Certainly, when presented with the relevant data now available, Congress will recognize that “implementing