Just days after a study linked sugary drink consumption to 180,000 worldwide deaths per year, a study by the same team of Harvard researchers has found salt to be even more deadly.
The preliminary study found a diet high in sodium contributed to 2.3 million cardiovascular deaths worldwide in 2010, and was responsible for one in 10 U.S. deaths. The researchers, who presented the study Thursday at the annual American Heart Association meeting in New Orleans, said 40 percent of those deaths are premature — affecting people 69 years old or younger.
Dariush Mozaffarian, one of the study’s researchers and associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News that salt is more dangerous than sugar largely because of its pervasiveness in the American diet — it’s everywhere, especially in processed, packaged foods:
MOZAFFARIAN: Sugar-sweetened beverages are just one type of food that people can avoid, whereas sodium is in everything. [...] It’s really amazing how pervasive it is. For the average person, it’s very hard to avoid salt — you have to be incredibly motivated, incredibly educated, have access to a range of foods and do all the cooking yourself.
It may take motivation and education, but cutting salt may be exactly what Americans need to do to curb the country’s rising obesity epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Pervention, the human body needs only 180 – 500 milligrams of salt per day to function, and the Institute of Medicne recommends 1,500 milligrams as an adequate salt intake level. But 75 percent of people worldwide consume twice that much, with Americans averaging 3,600 milligrams per day. One study found that cutting “hidden” salt — the kinds in packaged and restaurant foods — could result in 11.1 million fewer cases of high blood pressure each year.
And the threat of salt starts at a young age. A recent study found that 75 percent of pre-packaged meals and snacks for toddlers are high in sodium, and some contain as much as 630 milligrams of sodium — more than half of the U.S. Institute of Medicine’s reccommended 1,000 milligrams daily intake for children aged 1 through 3. In a statement, the study’s researchers explained that high salt intake as a toddler could not only lead to childhood obesity or early cases of high blood pressure; it could also hardwire children to crave saltier foods throughout their lives. “The less sodium in an infant’s or toddler’s diet, the less he or she may want it when older,” said Joyce Maalouf, the study’s lead author and fellow at the CDC.
In 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) spearheaded an initiative to encourage food companies such as Kraft, Heinz, Subway and Starbucks to lower the sodium content in their packaged and restaurant food, and it’s starting to work. But so far, the U.S. government hasn’t taken any similar steps to regulate sodium in packaged or restaurant foods — in 2010, it appeared as though the FDA was going to limit the amount of salt in food products, but that rumor was quickly squashed by the agency.