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Salt Wars: Science is strong despite doubters

Media release: 
19/02/2016

Is salt bad for you? Scientists, it seems, are divided on the issue. Researchers have examined more than 35 years-worth of literature on salt intake and found no consensus on whether a population-wide reduction of salt was associated with better health.

The study published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology systematically reviewed 269 academic reports published between 1979 and 2014. It found 54 percent were supportive of the hypothesis that population-wide reduction of salt is associated with better heath, 33 percent not supportive, and 13 percent inconclusive.

But, in the commentary accompanying the study by Columbia University, Professor Bruce Neal, from The George Institute for Global Health, says evidence shows a strong likelihood that salt reduction will deliver net health gains.

Professor Neal, Senior Director of the Food Policy Division at The George Institute, says the study did not assess the quality of the research over the 35 year period and like the tobacco and alcohol debate, there are commercial interests at play.

Professor Neal said: ‘Simply adding up the studies for and against is unhelpful because high quality projects get exactly the same weighting as low quality projects.

He noted that all authoritative national and international bodies, including the World Health Organization, have objectively evaluated all the data and come to the same conclusion of recommending salt reduction.

He said: “A balanced assessment of the multiple strands of evidence suggests a much higher likelihood of harm than benefit from current levels of salt consumption, and a strong likelihood that salt reductions will deliver net health gains without harms.

“Salt can transform cheap, low-quality base ingredients into high value merchandise. Transnational food companies are among the largest businesses in the world and fiercely protect their commercial positions.

“Food industry influence has resulted in the rejection of public health calls for mandated controls on the amount of salt added to products in most countries. There is also evidence the food industry is fomenting debate and stifling action of diet-related health, using subversive tactics pioneered by the tobacco and alcohol industries.”

Read the study and extract of Professor Neal’s commentary.