Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Craving the flavor that kills

Health campaigners say salt is implicated in tens of thousands of strokes and heart attacks each year. Now the British government wants to persuade people to eat less of it. But is salt really as bad for us as the health lobby insists?

By Sarah Boseley and Tim Radford

Civilization is built on salt. The discovery of its power to preserve food enabled wandering tribes to put down roots. Men and women could hunt and gather today and eat tomorrow. A life that was no longer hand-to-mouth allowed time to sit and think. Salt became as precious as any metal, was traded between nations and offered as gifts and payment. Its influence lingers in our linguistic value judgments: a good man is the salt of the earth and worth his salt, but a social inferior sits below it.

But the white crystals have lost their magic. "It wasn't a gift for civilization. It was a poison," says Graham MacGregor, a British professor of cardiovascular medicine and one man who has probably done more than any other to shake our confidence in a substance traditionally offered with bread as a sign of friendship to strangers.

MacGregor is chairman of CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) and is this week savoring the sweet taste of success. Ten years after he and fellow experts on blood pressure began pressing for limits on the amount of salt we eat, which they say is implicated in 120,000 heart attack deaths a year in the UK, the UK Food Standards Authority (FSA) has launched a ?4 million campaign to persuade people to eat less of it -- and manufacturers to cut the sackfuls they pour into processed foods.

But it isn't the salt on your table that does the damage -- it's the salt in your lasagne and, more alarmingly, your bread. The FSA says that 75 percent of a person's salt comes from processed foods, and that an adult consumes 9.5g a day, though we don't need more than 6g. Baked beans, breakfast cereals, pizza, soup and cooking sauces tend to be salt-lavish, but so are some sweet foods, such as cookies and hot chocolate.

Why does our food contain so much salt? Not only because manufacturers found it made their products taste more interesting, but also because it binds in water, thus cheaply adding "texture" or bulk. It also makes you thirsty -- another knock-on effect for the food and drink industry.

MacGregor argues that thousands of lives could be saved by cutting the salt content of processed foods by 10 percent to 20 percent.

"If salt intake was reduced to 6g a day, it would prevent 70,000 heart attacks per year, 35,000 of which are fatal. It is as big an improvement as when they put drains [sewers] into London," he says.

Unusually for a bunch of scientists, CASH is extremely media-savvy. It was naming and shaming high-salt foods, lambasting individual manufacturers and barbecuing supermarkets long before UK Health Minister Melanie Johnson got in on the act.

This month it scored a direct hit on the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's, fingering the company's "Be good to yourself" flakes and orchard fruits as one of "the UK's saltiest foods." One 50g portion contains 1.84g of salt, it said. Sainsbury's immediately pulled the product off the shelves.

Back in 1994, the UK government's advisory Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition (known as COMA) recommended a model diet for the UK, including a reduction to 6g of salt a day. The food industry obtained a leaked draft and four heavyweight food manufacturers -- Cadbury Schweppes, Tate and Lyle, United Biscuits and Mars -- demanded a meeting with the department of health. They did not get the answer they wanted.

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