Steve Chapman
"Put down the salt shaker and back away from the table. And don't even think about going for the chips." Those are lines you may hear on a TV police drama of the future, when the federal drive to curb salt consumption reaches cruising speed.

Last year, the government's Institute of Medicine urged the Food and Drug Administration to "gradually step down the maximum amount of salt that can be added to foods, beverages, and meals." The FDA is listening. In September, it published a notice concerning issues "associated with the development of targets for sodium reduction in foods to promote reduction of excess sodium intake."

It is currently focusing on voluntary steps to "promote gradual, achievable and sustainable reduction of sodium intake over time." But if it doesn't get its way, it may go beyond gentle encouragement. "Nothing is off the table," a spokesperson declared last year.

Salt has always been prized as a culinary marvel -- perking up flavors, masking bitter elements and preventing spoilage. Soup without salt is excellent for nourishing your garden, but unfit to eat. Any number of dishes taste better with a dash or two.

But many experts and public health organizations see salt as a killer, which in excess amounts causes high blood pressure and heart disease. They think we would all be better off eating less, and they want the government to make sure we do. Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, says that "we must treat sodium reduction as a critical public health priority."

But this clear certitude keeps getting clouded by confounding evidence. "For every study that suggests that salt is unhealthy, another does not," an article this year in Scientific American noted.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that people who consume less salt are actually more likely to die of heart disease. Recently, a study in the American Journal of Hypertension found that reducing dietary sodium can cause a harmful response from the body. "I can't really see, if you look at the total evidence, that there is any reason to believe there is a net benefit of decreasing sodium intake in the general population," the chief researcher told Reuters.

Nor is it clear that third parties can get people to reduce their ingestion of sodium. We have been hearing for decades about the alleged hazards of a high-salt diet, and anyone looking for alternatives can easily find them. But today, Americans consume the same amount of salt as they did 50 years ago, when bacon, eggs and hash browns were regarded as a wholesome breakfast.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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