Salt Wars: The Phantom Menace

Salt, when you hear the word, what thoughts come to mind? “Too much salt is bad for me.” Or, “That reminds me, I’ve got to check my bid on Ebay for that Elvis salt & pepper shaker set that I simply must have.” Heck, maybe you even have one of these lines, “My grand daddy lived to the ripe ole’ age of ninety-six and he put salt on everything from pasta to pickled pigs feet.”

That pretty much sums up salt’s MO. Lot’s of people who think it’s bad and limit their exposure to it, and then there are others who dump it on everything. As for Dr. Fuhrman, he’s no fan of salt. In fact, he considers it to be one of the seven worst foods for health and longevity. Here’s all seven:
  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Potato Chips and French Fries
  • Doughnuts
  • Salt
  • Sausage, hot dogs
  • Pickled, smoked or barbequed meat
Now not everyone shares Dr. Fuhrman’s disdain for salt. Rather, some “diet experts” basically endorse consumption of salty food. Take Dr. Atkins for example, he’d like people to use salted pork rinds as a substitute for dinner rolls and toast—and for making pie crusts! No, I'm not joking. Check it out over at
Atkins rivals the creativity of the raw-food chefs of today in his uses for pork rinds. Pork rinds are chunks of pigs’ skin that are deep-fried, salted and artificially flavored. He recommends people use them to dip caviar. Or, perhaps for those who can't afford caviar, one can use fried pork rinds as a "substitute for toast, dinner rolls...You can use them as a pie crust... or even matzo ball soup (see our recipe on p. 190)."[144] Matzo balls made out of pork rinds?--now that is a diet revolution!
You’ve got to wonder about recommendations like this, especially since according to Dr. Fuhrman salt consumption has been linked to the development of stomach cancer and hypertension. Consider this excerpt from Eat to Live:
Any excess salt added to food, outside of what is contained in natural foods, is likely to increase your risk of developing disease. Salt consumption is linked to both stomach cancer and hypertension.1 For optimal health, I recommend that no salt at all be added to any food. The famous DASH study clearly indicates that Americans consume five to ten times as much as they need and that high sodium levels over the years has a predictable effect on raising blood pressure.2 Just because you don’t have high blood pressure now doesn’t mean that you won’t. In fact, you probably will have high blood pressure if you keep eating lots of salt over the years.
So, what happens when dangerous diet information is put out there? The masses eat it up. For example, from Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb here’s Jimmy Moore’s take on salt:
Unless you are salt-sensitive (and it just so happens that I am!), there is no reason why you should watch your salt intake. An overwhelming majority have no reason to cut down on their salt intake. NONE! The fact that a minority of the population has sensitivity to salt should not make this a universal recommendation.
Luckily for Jimmy, he’s “salt-sensitive.” So he is limiting his exposure to it, but saying that the majority of people have no reason to avoid salt, well, that seems a little misguided because in addition to the hypertension and stomach cancer risk, Dr. Fuhrman associates salt intake with osteoporosis and heart attacks. More from Eat to Live:
Salt also pulls out calcium and other trace minerals in the urine when the excess is excreted, which is a contributory cause of osteoporosis.3 If that is not enough, high sodium intake is predictive of increased death from heart attacks. In a large prospective trial, recently published in the respected medical journal The Lancet, there was a frighteningly high correlation between sodium intake and all cause mortality in overweight men.4 The researchers concluded, “High sodium intake predicted mortality and risk of coronary heart disease, independent of other cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure. These results provide direct evidence of the harmful effects of high salt intake in the adult population.”
Now these dangers are clear, but arguably the biggest problem with salt is it shows up where you least expect it to. Sure, you can crack down on your habit of burying every meal in it, but, that’s only half the battle. Sally Kuzemchak of Prevention magazine explains that the main problem with salt is that it’s everywhere:
It's crammed into cheese slices and canned vegetables and sprinkled into cinnamon-raisin bagels and sandwich bread. You can consume a day's worth of the mineral with an order of mu shu pork with rice from your local Chinese restaurant, according to an analysis by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, in Washington, DC. As much as 80% of the sodium we get every day comes from these processed and prepared foods—not the salt shaker.
Sally also points to additional research highlighting the dangers of high-sodium diets:
There's also evidence to suggest that high-sodium diets may up the risk of gastric cancer. And in a small study from Colorado State University, a high-salt diet (more than 5,000 mg per day) worsened lung function in people with exercise-induced asthma, which occurs in as many as 90% of asthmatics. A low-salt diet improved it.
Information like this really makes you wonder how Dr. Atkins could endorse eating salty snacks like pork rinds. Now, the concern over people’s salt exposure is growing. Back in September Melanie Warner of The New York Times reported that the American Medical Association wants the government and the food industry to limit the amount of salt that can be used in food production. More from the report:
Specifically, the medical association, which had never before called for regulation of a food ingredient, asked the F.D.A. to revoke salt’s long-time status as a substance that is “generally recognized as safe,” a classification that warrants little oversight. Instead, the F.D.A. should regulate salt as a food additive, the medical group said.

If the recommendation were adopted, packaged-food companies would have to adhere to limits on allowable sodium levels for various categories of food, and speed up the search for an alternative to salt as a preservative and flavor enhancer.
What I take away from all this is more evidence of people’s emotional attachment to food, in this case salt; when you talk with Dr. Fuhrman he often refers to this phenomenon. Sometimes people are so blinded by their emotional crush on certain foods that they can’t face facts. The evidence shows that salt is bad for us, but, I guess some people just can’t stand the thought of a lonely pepper shaker.
[144 – From] Atkins, RC. Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution. David McKay Company, Inc., 1972.

1. Joosens, J.V., M.J. Hill, P. Elliot, et al. 1996. Dietary salt, nitrate and stomach cancer mortality in 24 countries: European Cancer Prevention (ECP) and the INTERSALT Cooperative Research Group. Int. J. Epidemiol. 3:494-504.

2. Obarzanek, E., F.M. Sacks, T.J. Moore, et al. 2000. Dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH)—sodium trial. Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Society of Hypertension, May 17, New York, NY.

3. Itoh, R., and Y. Suyama. 1996. Sodium excretion in relation to calcium and hydroxyproline excretion in a healthy Japanese population. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 63 (5): 735-40.

4. Tuomilehto, J., P. Jousilahti, D. Rastenyte, et al. 2001. Urinary sodium excretion and cardiovascular mortality in Finland: a prospective study. Lancet 357 (9259): 848-51.
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Comments (8) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Jennifer Shmoo - February 15, 2007 9:03 PM

Is it possible, though, to be too low in sodium? I worry about that in the summer when the temperature is over 100 and I'm drinking lots of water and sweating a lot. Should a little salt be added then to maintain electrolyte balance?

Kyle Key - February 16, 2007 9:28 AM

Just as a quick response to Jennifer, yes, it is possible to not get enough sodium--it's essential--but I think that it would be quite difficult. The medical term is "hyponatremia."

row - February 16, 2007 12:03 PM

Most of the raw food people would agree with you that ordinary table salt is bad. They would say if the source of salt is raw, unheated and has a magical name, like " Himalayan Pink Crystal Salt" that is thousand of centuries old, it is very healthy. It will not cause the same problem table salt causes.
I would like to see these crary claims that the raw food people make for eating raw salt addressed. thankyou

John - February 16, 2007 2:48 PM

Sorry, I can't get past the idea of pork matzo balls. :-)

I've never liked salt or salty foods. I don't use salt and I generally do not eat french fries, potato chips, etc. Granted, salt is in a lot of other foods, but I really think I consume far less than the average American. I live in Texas and am physically active. I don't crave salt and I don't have any salt-depletion health issues. I would think you would have to literally be consuming no sodium or drinking way too much water for anything bad to happen. But I'm an engineer, not a doctor, so....

Megan Cornish - February 17, 2007 2:27 AM

In answer to the question about the possibility of having too low sodium, according to Dr. Fuhrman, it doesn't happen if you eat a high fruit & vegetable diet, because natural foods have some sodium in them. They just don't have the excess amount that is present in processed foods.

Jennifer Shmoo - February 17, 2007 4:56 PM

Okay, thank you for all your help!

GMB - February 25, 2007 9:44 PM

actually there is a distinction between regular table salt and himalayan or sea salt. in a nutshell, table salt is around 97% NaCl, as opposed to around 85% for sea salt. sea salt has the minerals essential for human life in a perfect balance - which is why when you put some on your tongue it doesn't taste disgustingly salty- unlike table salt. table salt has also been iodized and processed to make it a poison (not unlike table sugar vs. say, honey, which is a complete food). when any food (salt, sugar, or others) is highly processed the body must take nutrients from within itself to attempt to counter the poison. atkins, unfortunately, does not make this distinction, but demonizing salt is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. or you can just listen to the media hype - which is clearly working out well for the pharmaceutical industry. do your own research, that's why you have a brain...

Mark Levin - March 20, 2007 10:07 AM

I recommend checking out the following website to get a different and more balanced view of the salt debate (yes debate). This is the same Gary Taubes who wrote the 'Soft Science of Dietary Fat' and 'What If It's Been a Big Fat Lie?' You'll note that he won an award for his article.

GMB is probably right about Sea Salt being better for you athough our blood plasma more likely resembles the ancient seas that the marine creatures that eventually evolved into man lived in (less salty). I also don't accept that processing is always evil. For example, when I have a headache I'll take an aspirin rather than the liquid from boiled birch bark.

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