Go Ahead. Have a Potato Chip.


The FDA wants the food industry to cut down on sodium. Julia Belluz reports:

Public health groups have been sounding the alarm for years about how the food industry’s liberal use of sodium is harmful to our health….As it stands, the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day. Health officials recommend that people aim to eat no more than 2,300 mg per day.

….The new guidelines, which are still in draft form, set targets for the gradual lowering of salt in a range of products including both processed and restaurant foods over the short term (two years) and long term (10 years).

I don’t have anything against cutting back on salt. It’s always struck me as sort of a vicious circle: we put more salt in our food; we get accustomed to the higher sodium level; so we put even more salt in our food. What’s the point?

But that’s just a personal opinion. When it comes to the actual health risks of salt, that 2300 mg recommendation is almost certainly bogus. Here’s master debunker Aaron Carroll on a recent study of sodium intake in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Americans consume, on average, 3.4 grams of sodium per day….This is on the low end of the “safe zone” of 3-6 grams in the study. The United States Food and Drug Administration thinks that’s not low enough. It recommends 2.3 grams per day.

Why? There’s surprisingly little rationale for this belief. Last year, experts convened by the Institute of Medicine assessed the evidence concerning sodium intake around the world. They agreed that efforts to reduce excessive sodium were warranted. But they cautioned that no such evidence existed to recommend a very low salt diet….What [the NEJM study] found was worrisome. When compared with those who consumed 3-6 grams per day, people who consumed less than 3 grams of sodium per day had an even higher risk of death or cardiovascular incidents than those who consumed more than 7 grams per day.

This result would be shocking if we in the medical community hadn’t seen it before. But we have. In 2011, researchers published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association after following 3,681 people over almost a decade. They, too, found that excessive salt intake was associated with high blood pressure. They also found that a low-sodium diet was associated with higher mortality from cardiovascular causes.

The inevitable chart is below. The lesson here is simple: As with everything else, you shouldn’t overdo the salt. And if you have a specific medical condition that requires low sodium, then listen to your doctor. Beyond that, though, the chances are that your sodium intake is fine. As near as I can tell, our nutritional establishment remains hellbent on hectoring us about our diets based on a combination of weak evidence and folk wisdom from Satchel Paige. Then they wonder why no one pays attention to them. It’s a puzzler, all right.