Reducing salt in processed foods would save many lives

November 29, 2015  |  General

The link between salt intake and high blood pressure has been known for decades. That’s why, if you have high blood pressure, your doctor will tell you to reduce your salt intake. The reason is that excess salt makes your body retain more water. And more water in your circulation means more fluid in your vascular pipes, making the pressure in the pipes higher. That’s also why one of the first line treatments for high blood pressure is a diuretic, a drug that makes your kidneys release more water into the urine. It’s one thing to put down the salt shaker and also reduce (or eliminate) your consumption of salty snacks. But there is a hidden source of salt we often don’t think about — the salt in processed foods. When you are cooking raw food you control how much salt you add.  But you are not in control of how much salt is in processed foods, such as prepared things you might get in the frozen food section or out of a box. Food companies add quite a bit of salt to these since the perception is that doing so makes the foods tastier. Do they need to do that? How much different would foods taste if they didn’t? A recent study gives some answers to those questions.

The research was published in a recent edition of the British Medical Journal. The investigators used a national survey database to look at changes in the incidence of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attacks over the past decade and found improvements in all of these. There are several possible explanations, including better treatment for these conditions. However, the investigators also had access to urinary salt values in many patients. The improvement particularly in blood pressure correlated with lower salt consumption. Of note, since 2003 the amount of salt in processed foods has been gradually reduced in the United Kingdom. Overall salt consumption fell by 15%. It is reasonable to conclude that at least part of the reduction in cardiovascular disease they observed was because of this salt reduction.

Although it would be difficult to accomplish, I don’t see any reason such improvements couldn’t be carried out in the USA. From everything we know, particularly high blood pressure is a long-term killer, and most people with it don’t know they have it because blood pressure needs to become very high before a person has any symptoms that would bring them to the doctor.

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