A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine examines what would happen to our nation’s health statistics if we succeeded in reducing salt intake. Although I’ve always known, as all physicians do, of the connections between excessive salt intake and heart and blood vessel problems, I was surprised by the magnitude of the findings. An average per person reduction in salt intake of 3 grams per day would have dramatic effects on the incidence of these diseases. The authors estimate that the numbers of strokes and heart attacks would drop substantially: the annual number of deaths from all causes could easily drop by nearly 50,000. The greatest benefit would accrue, over time, to young persons, because the cumulative incidence of these chronic illnesses would fall. Even a more modest reduction in average salt intake — 1 gram per day — would still reap great rewards, since the relationship of salt intake to cardiovascular disease is a linear one.
And where does most of the salt in our diet currently come from? Not from the salt shaker — it comes from processed foods, those convenient boxes on supermarket shelves. The salt in these products can be reduced without consumers even noticing — a 10% reduction was accomplished in England over a 4 year period without complaints.
Addendum: Recently Kraft Foods announced it plans to reduce the salt in its prepared foods by about 10%. Read about it here.