Milton Bass: Take sodium debate with a pinch of salt



I have been on a low-salt diet for 35 years and recently there have been major questions on whether people should curtail their salt use or let it fly. This has happened three or four times in the course of my saltlessness, but this time major groups are being salty with each other. According to one of the medical specialists who has been counseling me for years, the problem has to do mostly with computers and doctors who are fascinated at what the hard drives can figure out.

"They enter all these previous studies into the machines," he said, "and they can ply it with loaded questions that will give answers according to their personal beliefs and ambitions. In order to get a balanced survey, you must figure out what they were after and what they came up with."


There is no question that salt can induce your body to hold water, raise your blood pressure and possibly enhance danger of heart attacks and strokes. For those people, cardiologists usually recommend that salt intake be limited to 1,500 milligrams a day, which is a little more than half a teaspoon. The average person in our country (and around the world) shakes, rattles and rolls for 3,400 milligrams a day, which is about a teaspoon and a half.

There is no problem with this in the home because caring wives cut way back on salt in their cooking. My wife uses various herbs and spices to make up for the distinct flavor of salt. The major problem has to do with restaurants and fast food chains where it calls for a pinch of salt and the chef grabs a handful and just flings it in the pot.

Canned products come next, especially soups where the amount varies from 800 to 1,200 milligrams per can. The few low sodium canned soups are mostly tasteless or just plain weird. I add a drop of hot sauce to the bubbling or just grind the pepper mercilessly. You would think they could work out a smattering of herbs that would add flavor.

There has been an improvement in low-salt canned products in the past few years but you have to hunt them down. And some restaurant chefs have cut back on the amount they use. But you have to hunt pretty far and wide to find ones that don't just dump salt willy-nilly.

For some unknown reason, maybe to take its mind off its other problems, the government under the imprimatur of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commissioned a so-called expert committee to bring use of salt up to date, since nobody's really focused on the problem since 2005.

After due research and study, the committee concluded that when you go below the 2,300 mark, there was no indication of benefit for the general public but there might be certain subgroups who possibly could have their health improved. The main thing was that blood pressure dropped somewhat on the lower salt levels so this might also lower heart attacks and strokes.


In 2008, the Italians tried higher and lower salt levels for 232 patients. The patients in the lower salt group had many more hospital admissions and had more than twice as many deaths. In 2012, the Americans took a crack at it using 28,800 people with high blood pressure, aged 55 and older. They found after four years that people using more than 7,000 milligrams or less than 3,000 milligrams a day had higher risks of heart attacks, strokes and congestive heart failure. Too much or too little. Where is the happy midpoint?

The American Heart Association makes no bones about where the midpoint might be. In a letter to The New York Times, Chief Executive Nancy Brown states that the organization recommends 1,500 milligrams a day rather than the safepoint 3,400 as designated by the government.

"Reducing sodium intake," she writes, "significantly lowers blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular events We urge the restaurant and food industries to allow consumers to choose healthier levels of sodium in their diets."

My advice is to take this whole problem with a pinch of salt and then judge the matter personally.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle


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