Dick Groves
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The Idiotic, Dangerous War On Salt

They’re at it again: the fear-mongers are warning of the hazards of consuming a high-salt diet. The problem is, what these zealots really are seeking is a diet that’s dangerously low in salt.

In this case, what we’re referring to is the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which issued a press release a couple of weeks ago under the following headline: “CDC report finds sodium consumption high among U.S. Children.”

The report’s subhead was: “More than 40 percent of sodium comes from 10 common types of food.” And of course cheese didn’t fare very well in the CDC’s report; among kids, cheese ranks as the sixth leading source of sodium in the diet.

Some other top 10 sodium sources also contain cheese (at least potentially): pizza, ranked number one; sandwiches, ranked fifth; pasta mixed dishes, ranked eighth; and Mexican mixed dishes, ranked ninth.

The CDC isn’t alone in pushing the panic button on sodium in children’s diets. Also joining the anti-salt chorus was the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been waging a war on salt for more than three decades (it was way back in 1978 that CSPI filed two petitions that called on the US Food and Drug Administration to, among other things, set ceilings, or tolerances, for sodium in processed foods, and to reclassify salt from GRAS to food additive status).

CSPI greeted the new CDC report with a statement headlined as follows: “CDC Sodium Intake Data for Children Should Ring Alarm Bells.” In a statement, Jim O’Hara, CSPI’s health promotion policy director, said the “dangerously high levels of sodium children are consuming demand action” from FDA; that, at the average 3,279 milligrams per day being consumed by kids, “we are sentencing all too many children to premature death from heart disease and stroke”; and that kids aren’t pouring the salt on their pizzas, snacks and cold cuts, “but the food industry is.”

There is one huge problem with the CDC report’s findings, as well as the CSPI’s reaction to it: it’s based on “old” science. Based on quite a bit of recent research, the amount of sodium being consumed by most kids is just about right.

For example, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine a few weeks ago concluded that an estimated sodium intake between three grams per day and six grams per day was associated with a lower risk of death and cardiovascular events than was either a higher or lower estimated level of intake.

According to the CDC report, average daily sodium intake ranges from 2,903 milligrams for kids ages six to 10 years to 3,672 milligrams for kids ages 14 to 18 years. So according to the NEJM study, kids are consuming just the right amount of sodium every day (in fact, they could consume more sodium and still be okay).

Also, a study recently published in the American Journal of Hypertension identified a specific range of sodium intake (2,645 to 4,945 milligrams) “associated with the most favorable health outcomes.” An increased mortality risk was found to be associated with intakes that violate this range, and in none of the primary or supplementary analyses was a low sodium intake associated with beneficial effects on all-cause mortality or cardiovascular disease.

Again, according to figures in the CDC report, kids are consuming an amount of sodium every day that’s associated with the “most favorable” health outcomes.

Basically, there are at least two problems with the CDC’s study and CSPI’s reaction to it. First, the CDC uses the most recent version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as the basis for its finding that kids are consuming too much sodium. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that kids eat less than 2,300 milligrams per day total.

CSPI actually wants FDA to reduce the Daily Value for sodium to 1,500 milligrams. This is potentially dangerous, given recent research findings.

Another problem with the CDC’s report is a section of the report that suggests small changes that can make a “big impact” on a child’s daily sodium intake. The chart shows sodium intake for “A Typical Day,” including breakfast at home, a morning snack, lunch at school, an afternoon snack and then “Dinner on the go.”

This adds up to 3,285 milligrams of sodium in a “typical day,” which, as noted earlier, is pretty much in the appropriate range (neither too high nor too low) being recommended in some recent studies.
Changes recommended in the CDC’s chart include, among other things, skipping the deli cheese on the fast food deli sandwich for “dinner on the go.” Along with other suggested changes, this reduces daily sodium intake by 1,135 milligrams.

That brings daily sodium intake down to 2,150 milligrams. Based on the research cited earlier, this is below the level considered best for optimal health. In other words, it’s potentially hazardous for kids.

What all this boils down to, it seems, is for the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to get it right on sodium. As long as the Dietary Guidelines recommend 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for about half the adult population and 1,500 milligrams for at-risk consumers, reports such as the one recently issued by the CDC are going to sound the alarms among anti-sodium zealots.

New research is concluding that sodium consumption below a certain level is just as hazardous as sodium consumption above certain levels. It’s time for federal agencies and others to recognize that there is such a thing as too little salt, for kids and adults alike.

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