Could 95 percent of the world’s people be wrong about salt?

For years, health authorities around the world have warned people that they are eating too much salt.

Too much salt is causing heart attacks and strokes, according to these warnings, and in the U.S. alone, authorities say too much salt is precipitating tens of thousands of deaths annually.

Yet the response from the public has been a remarkable show of dietary disobedience. An estimated 95 percent of the world’s population keep eating salt in amounts officials deem excessive.

So who’s right – the people, or the health authorities? The question sounds naive, but in fact, some scientists ask the very same thing, and it lurks behind the debate that has sprung up this year over the government’s longstanding salt advice, which is embedded in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

At a major scientific conference last week in New York City, some presenters suggested that, in fact, the persistent global appetite for salt might be a sign that humans are geared for more salt than health authorities would allow.

These scientists point to new science indicating humans may be hard-wired to crave salt, and that there may be a natural appetite for it above the amounts that the government recommends. They point to the vast gap between what the authorities say is a healthy amount of salt and the amounts that people around the world are actually consuming.

The U.S. official warning on salt is “the most radical existing nutrition recommendation,” said Niels Graudal, a researcher at Copenhagen University Hospital, at the New York meeting of the American Society of Hypertension.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines currently advise people to eat less than 2,300 milligrams sodium per day, or roughly the amount that comes in one teaspoon of salt. Americans, meanwhile, consume much more than that – about 3,500 milligrams per day. Around the globe, salt consumption is above the U.S. guidelines, too – the averages ranges from 2,500 milligrams per day to 4,500 milligrams per day, according to surveys.

Not surprisingly, scientists who support government efforts to reduce sodium consumption dispute the idea of a natural appetite for high levels of salt. They say that the reason people are eating so much salt is that the corrupt modern diet makes it all too available in processed foods, especially bread.

“Our salt taste preferences are based on what we commonly eat and what we’re used to,” said Mary Cogswell, a CDC scientist. Cogswell said that since she has switched to a low-salt diet, she often finds food at restaurants too salty.

“Our need for salt is entirely hedonistic – that is, it is a pleasure but it kills you,” Graham MacGregor, a medical professor at Queen Mary University of London, and a long-time supporter of salt restrictions, said by email.

Either way, as the federal government prepares its influential Dietary Guidelines for 2015, bureaucrats must take a side in what has become a profound and heated scientific debate: They must either retract the government’s longstanding salt warning, which is echoed by the American Heart Association, or they must overlook recent studies suggesting that the government advice on salt, far from helping people, might even be dangerous for the otherwise healthy.

Even some of the major health associations are now divided on the question. Earlier this month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, issued a statement expressing their concern about the science behind government’s salt advice.

“There is a distinct and growing lack of scientific consensus on making a single sodium consumption recommendation for all Americans,” said Academy President Sonja L. Connor. She cited the research indicating that the low sodium consumption recommended by the government is “actually associated with increased mortality for healthy individuals.”

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Author: Travis Esquivel

Travis Esquivel is an engineer, passionate soccer player and full-time dad. He enjoys writing about innovation and technology from time to time.

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