Research links salt use to premature death

Dive Brief:

  • Consumers who always add salt to their food have a 28% higher risk of premature death compared to those who never add the seasoning, according to a study published in European Heart Journal earlier this month. Men who said they always add salt lost an average of 2.3 years from their lives, while women who always add salt lost an average of 1.5 years.
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables moderated the negative effects on those who said they always add salt, researchers found. For those who ate a high level of fruits and vegetables, there was no significant link between salt use and increased mortality.
  • Sodium consumption has been repeatedly associated with health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. The U.S. government has not made any binding policy requiring companies to reduce the amount that can be in packaged or restaurant foods.

Dive Insight:

This study is another strike against salt consumption. Even though it is a popular seasoning for all kinds of food products, scientific research has found nothing good about the health effects of eating the mineral.

The data came from 501,379 people who filled out a questionnaire on the frequency of adding salt to foods on the UK Biobank, a massive biomedical database with information available to researchers. Those who worked on this paper followed up with these people for a median of nine years, monitoring their health impacts and death rates. 

Although this research is pulled from British consumer information, the results have direct correlations to U.S. consumers.

According to 2016 research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90% of children and 89% of adults in the U.S. consume more than the recommended sodium levels. A year later, CDC research found 71% of the salt consumers eat is found in processed and restaurant foods. Only 5% of salt consumed is added at the table.

A global survey by The Ajinomoto Group found 64% of U.S. consumers know salt is bad for them, but only 41% try to control their intake.

However, avoiding the salt shaker could pay off, the European Heart Journal study found. When all is said and done, the additional salt may only represent a tiny fraction of the amount that consumers eat, but it can make a big difference. The study also partially puts the onus on CPG companies to cut down on the sodium in their products. Some companies, including PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Smithfield Foods, are working to reduce the amount of salt used in their offerings. 

After five years of being classified as pending, FDA issued voluntary salt reduction guidelines for 163 categories of packaged food last year. These guidelines would help reduce average daily salt consumption from 3,400 mg to 3,000 mg — a 12% reduction. It is still more than the 2,300 mg maximum recommended in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

It’s not clear how many companies have embraced these new sodium reduction guidelines just yet. They are only voluntary and no studies looking at them have been published in the nearly eight months since they came out. However, Sonia Pombo, campaign manager for British salt reduction group Action on Salt, told Food Ingredients First that this study shows the need for “mandatory, comprehensive salt reduction targets which would require all companies to work towards the same standards.”