Is salt bad for you we reveal the truth about those tiny crystals...

The Good Life Letter

Friday, 15 May 2011 

  • Confused science is bad science... and dangerous
  • Is salt bad for you or should you eat more?!
  • Take the common sense approach to diet

Sometimes I have to despair at the scientific community.

"Too little salt may be hazardous to health" said the headline. So now I'm sat here thinking IS salt bad for you?

How in blue blazes can that be correct? For the past umpteen years we have been subjected to a hail of announcements and policies which are aimed at REDUCING our salt intake.

Our food Czars are constantly banging on about the danger of take-away food, ready meals and added salt to cooking water. We know that a high intake of this mineral will clog our arteries and render our heart a flaccid lump in our chests.

All of this is written large across every magazine, newspaper and government pamphlet that has anything to do with health. Over time we have begun to dutifully follow this advice, looking out for the salt content on tinned and packaged foods, choosing low salt crisps and saying no to the nice lady in the chip shop.

All of this may now be completely wrong if the Journal of the American Medical Association is to be believed.

After studying a population of 3,681 participants for an average of 8 years they have concluded that people with low concentrations of salt in their urine had an increased risk of dying from cardio vascular problems.

So, there you have it; conclusive proof that we can return to the days of properly seasoned food without risk to our life and limbs...

...But before you head for the salt cellar and the chip pan; let's just have a look at that research shall we?

To salt or not to salt... that is the question

In a series of clinical trails covering the last 40 years both the BMA and NICE have published papers which show that the incidence of strokes and heart attacks is directly linked to high salt intakes.

In fact, the recommendation is that we don't eat more than 6g per day as an adult.

These studies involved tens of thousands of people, and in the case of a 2009 BMJ publication ran for 40 years. It isn't likely that they were too far wrong is it.

Naturally, the salt and fast food industry have continued to contest this evidence along with several strong pressure groups and lobbyists who feel that modern science has got it all wrong.

Their belief is that we are being subjected to an overly officious 'Nanny Health State' scare story, and that the danger of salt in diet is being overplayed.

Now I'm not one to stand behind someone's pet theory unless I can see some merit in it, and on occasion have been known to take an opposing view to the moral majority out of sheer bloody mindedness; however, in this case I can't see what the argument is.

More to the point the JAMA study seems to have more holes in it than a pair of my old gardening socks!

For instance:

- Surely the place to measure salt in the body is in blood, not in urine. By the time it gets into the urine it has basically been dumped by the body. The kidneys are the online cleaning squad for the body, and actively select the stuff to get rid of, or not.

You might have a huge amount of salt in the blood but the kidneys are holding onto it because you are dehydrated and it needs to pull as much water into the blood as possible, or it might be that your kidneys don't work very well.

This means that to say the level of salt in urine is representative of dietary intake is as wrong as it could be.

- Using 4,000 participants is a reasonable sample size, but their finding are based on 84 deaths in this group -  of which 50 were in the low salt excretion group, 24 in a medium and 10 in a high.

Now as I've said many times before I'm not a good mathematician... I struggle to tot up a darts score, but I don't see that this is a significant number.

Before the statisticians among you mail me to describe p-values and degrees of significance I know that there is a difference between numbers at this level. My point is that out of 4,000 people chances are the 84 deaths were amongst those who had kidney problems anyway.

A bit of plain common sense

Despite all this though I need to make one point to the supporters of this campaign, and the authors of the paper.

No one is saying we can't eat ANY salt, just that it makes sense to use it where we get the best from it.

Rather than adding it to cover up for a lack of flavour or texture in pre-packaged rubbish, as an alternative to ladling it over burger chips to make our kids drink more sugary pop or chucking snow storms of salt into shop made sandwiches and breakfast cereal - why not add a little to bring out the goodness and flavour in fresh food?

We CAN shake a bit over our cod and chips, even appropriately season a few boiled spuds - we just don't need to make it a major part of the meal.

"A little of what you fancy does you good" has long been my culinary motto, and this applies to the way I choose to season and spice my food.

Salt isn't all bad, in fact at times it can be a real boon (especially the Transylvanian stuff in the fantastic salt pipes).

But that DOESN'T mean that it is all good either. Whatever this JAMA paper says we should look after our heart and blood vessels by watching how much salt we eat.

That's just plain common sense.


Yours, as always




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