Why you should care

The health-conscious want a once-and-for-all directive, and the rest of us just love potato chips.

Smoking, cliff diving, dancing in traffic … Certain things are proven health hazards. But after tobacco products, salt may be public health enemy No. 1.

It’s not just a matter of bad reputation. According to a study from 2010, cutting back on salt could save as many or more lives as cutting back on tobacco would. The idea is that too much salt will jack up your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart attack, which everyone agrees is bad for your health. It may come as a shock, then, that there is a fierce ongoing debate among scientists about whether or not salt is actually bad for you.

The real danger might come not from your saltshaker, but rather from processed foods.

Turns out the case against salt is not as much of a slam dunk as the medical guidelines make it seem. For example, some studies show that higher salt intake results in lower risk of death due to cardiovascular problems, while others tell us that eating too little salt will kill you just as dead as eating too much. Still others will tell you that, at least where blood pressure is concerned, your salt intake doesn’t matter at all. Yeah, you read that right — some studies say that salt has zero effect on your blood pressure.

To be sure, there are methodological problems with some of these studies. For example, people who are eating a low-sodium diet might be doing so because they are already sick, making it look like their low sodium intake caused their health problems, when in fact they got on the low-salt diet because of their health problems (a phenomenon known as reverse causation). Furthermore, these studies contradict many others that say salt really is dangerous. However, in no area is the science bad enough, or the evidence overwhelming enough, to make a final determination either way.

But if the evidence is so imperfect, why is salt so thoroughly maligned by the medical establishment? Some public health bigwigs think that it might be more about market share than making people healthy. Specifically, in the ’60s and ’70s, when the anti-sodium movement was picking up steam, companies started marketing low-sodium products (specifically baby food) to take advantage of a fresh niche. Before there was enough evidence to conclusively convict salt as a public health villain, the mineral had already gained a terrible reputation.

Does this inconclusive evidence give you carte blanche to curl up with a salt lick? Sorry, no. But if you have been struggling to cut back, you could be in luck. The real danger might come not from your saltshaker, but rather from processed foods. Most of them, especially sauces and spreads, have an astonishingly large amount of sodium. If you make your food at home, it’s probably fine to sprinkle in some salt if you’d like — it is an essential nutrient, after all, key in many processes related to blood, nerves, and even movement. If you add salt to your TV dinners, well … you’re probably not reading stories on public health. On the off chance you are, consider unhanding the white stuff. Salt is probably not up there with the Grim Reaper, but you can still have too much of a good thing.

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