Salt has been taxed, monopolized, treasured and fought over for thousands of years. Today's scientists are waging a modern-day salt war. In the 1970s, American researchers experimenting on rats found very high doses of salt raised blood pressure. Some of the most-cited evidence on salt and health came in a 1988 international study called InterSalt, which surveyed more than 10,000 men and women in scores of populations across the world. The study included four remote tribes in Brazil, Kenya and New Guinea whose people had the lowest salt intake and were also found to have the lowest blood pressure and very few, if any, cases of hypertension. Although these findings were disputed by parties including the Salt Institute, it wasn't long before a scientific consensus emerged that too much salt is bad for you. A 2005 study in the PubMed journal found almost 1 billion people around the world have high blood pressure, which makes the heart work too hard, hardens the walls of the arteries and can cause other problems such as heart failure, kidney disease, and blindness. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, claiming 17.1 million lives a year. A substantial number of these deaths are put down to smoking, which raises the risk of hypertension, strokes and heart attacks. In the past few years, governments have begun to act. Under its health-promoting mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City pledged in 2010 to coordinate a U.S.-wide effort to cut salt in restaurant and packaged foods by 25 percent. National sodium reduction strategies have been adopted across Europe and inAustralia, China and India. Scores of health authorities around the world advise that we should aim to reduce our salt intake from the roughly 9 to 12 grams a day we eat now down to around 6 grams, about a teaspoonful a day. Since around 75 percent of all the salt we consume comes from packaged and processed
food, rather than from what we sprinkle on top of it, food manufacturers have been in the firing line. Under pressure from health authorities and the WHO, the food industry, which stands accused of using salt to boost the flavor, shelf-life and profit of what would otherwise be bland ingredients, has taken action. Big brands like Heinz, Kellogg's, Nestle, Pepsico, General Mills and others have been steadily reducing sodium levels in their foods. According to Susan Jebb, a nutrition adviser to the UK government, Britain is leading the way, forcing foodmakers to make some "impressive" reductions including a 30 percent reduction in salt in bread, about a 50 percent cut in branded breakfast cereals and around 25 percent in pasta sauces. Among the health-conscious at least, a salt-shaker on the dining table is becoming almost as frowned on as an ashtray.
But the findings that policy-makers have accepted as settled are not as clear-cut among scientists. A study in July by the much-respected Cochrane Library, which conducts meta-analyses of scientific data by grouping together the best studies on a subject and pooling the results,found no evidence that reducing salt intake cuts the risk of developing heart disease or dying before your time. In that study Rod Taylor, a professor of health services research at Exeter University, analyzed seven randomized controlled trials covering more than 6,500 people and found that although cutting down did appear to lead to slight reductions in blood pressure this did not translate into lower risk of heart disease or premature death. In one group of people, those with pre-existing heart conditions, reducing salt was actually associated with an increase in the likelihood of premature death. Taylor said he did not receive payment from, or have links to, the salt industry. His study was funded by a grant from the UK government's National Institute for Health Research. Taylor's study came hot on the heels of another, by Belgian scientists, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). That found people who ate lots of salt were no more likely to get high blood pressure, and were statistically less likely to die of heart disease, than those with low salt intake.
Against the above background, what should be the attitude of the consumer? Is reducing salt is really beneficial? Will the present level of salt consumption lead to premature death? If reduced salt intake can lower blood pressure (BP), especially in high BP consumers, why not adopt such a diet regime? What about the salt "balancing" system human body has which is supposed to excrete excess salt? Can there be a universal salt intake standard when it is known that those living in hot, humid, tropical climates excrete lot of salt through perspiration? Probably normal and healthy consumers must take their own decision regarding what is best for them till a universal consensus emerges on this issue while high BP patients may reduce salt intake to get the supposed benefit of low salt ingestion.