According to a Department of Health press release dated August 12, 2011
, researchers at the University of Warwick have found that “cutting salt consumption by half a teaspoon a day could save 20,000 lives a year. Researchers have called for voluntery or mandatory action to set lower salt targets for manufacturers and public awareness campaigns.”
If you noticed the spelling mistake, well done; if you thought that was the only mistake on the page, think again. In the first instance, does anyone really believe that if we all cut down on or cut out salt from our diet, there will be 20,000 fewer deaths next year? As Professor Eysenck
once said of smoking-related deaths, such statistics are extrapolations from epidemiological data, and have no scientific meaning of any kind.
Leaving that aside, look at the qualification: cutting down our consumption “could” save 20,000 lives a year. By the same token, if you buy a lottery ticket tonight you “could” be a multi-millionaire by this time next week. But you probably won’t.
Obviously, somebody took that word “could” at face value, and by the following day, Abbie Smith of Healthcare Global
was quoting figures that had been extrapolated to the entire world
“Scientists in Britain are urging the UN to take drastic action to reduce the amount of salt people consume in their diets.” Where does the United Nations come in?
“They are arguing that 8.5 million lives could be saved around the world in the next 10 years if our salt intake is reduced by 15 percent.” But did they really say that?
“The researchers cited the US as an example, where they claim hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved and healthcare costs would be reduced by $24 billion annually.”
These figures are truly amazing, but how much reliance can be placed on them? The truth is, human populations vary so widely that we can obtain little meaningful evidence about the benefits of a particular diet or lifestyle from studies such as these. People of different ages react differently, there are racial differences, men and women’s bodies often react differently – women for example put on fat in different places - even within families there can be enormous differences; just as some people inherit particular traits from either or both parent, others don’t.
While too much salt or too much of anything may be bad for you, salt is not something we should attempt to exclude from our diets; it may for example be too little potassium rather than too much salt that is responsible for high blood pressure. As with most such pronouncements, when one actually looks at the medical literature
, very often one finds half a dozen studies that indicate one thing for every six that indicate the other.
Complex medical studies with all the problems they entail may be good news for universities, if you believe make-work jobs are good, but dragging in the United Nations does seem a bit drastic. What is the UN supposed to do, draw up worldwide protocols for salt consumption, and impose sanctions on or even bomb those countries that reject them?