The Salt Conspiracy
Too much salt is bad for you, right?
This is what federal nutrition guidelines say. Not to mention the National Academy of Sciences and the American Heart Association.
Too much sodium--more than 2,300 miligrams a day or a teaspoon of salt--can lead to high blood pressure, which can increase the risk for heart disease.
But a few months ago, the Journal of the College of Nutrition published a supplement that contained articles questioning the scientific basis for this longstanding recommendation. It might not have made much of splash outside academia, but Integrity in Science Watch, a project of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, slammed the supplement, alleging the editor, Dr. Alexander G. Logan, a researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Ontario, Canada, was a "paid consultant to the salt industry" and didn't disclose his industry ties.
We've all been told to be dubious of studies paid for by Big Tobacco. Lately, we've learned it's hard to find an expert on depression or schizophrenia who isn't getting paid by Big Pharma. And now, CSPI is telling us, we have Big Salt.
The editors of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, it seems, let the members of "the sodium committee" of the International Life Sciences Institute choose the editor for the supplement and didn't disclose that to its readers, in violation of its own conflict-of-interest disclosure policies. The articles were also not peer reviewed, according to CSPI.
(No one answered the phone at ACN yesterday. The outgoing message said they're all at a conference in Reno. If I hear from them, I'll be sure to add their comments.)
Reading the ILSI's members list is like taking a trip to the grocery store: Frito-Lay, Kraft, Kellogg and Pepsi. The purveyors of salty foods have an ally in the Salt Institute, an industry trade group, which has frequently cited Logan's work.
Conflicts of interest among medical researchers has become enough of a concern lately that the Food and Drug Administration is in the process of rewriting its guidelines to make it nearly impossible for experts who are paid out of the marketing budget of drug companies to sit on FDA advisory panels.
Of course, this latest spat between CSPI and Logan goes beyond a question of ethics. It's another skirmish in the ongoing War Over Salt.
The American Medical Association wants the FDA to stop considering salt as "generally recognized as safe," an official designation that means it gets little oversight. The Salt Institute is lobbying against this and quoting studies such as the ones that ran in JACN to make its case.
Here's my Modest Proposal: I say they should just let journals take ads from sympathetic sponsors. Just cover the things in logos, the way NASCAR does. That way, everything is out in the open and consumers won't have to work as hard to know where everyone stands.
Instead of getting accused of pulling the wool over people's eyes, JACN should just let Swanson's run an ad for Hungry Man XXL Roasted Carved Turkey dinner--5,410 mg of sodium per serving--next to the article written by Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg of Brigham and Women's Hospital that concluded "the available evidence shows that the influence of salt intake is too inconsistent and generally too small to mandate policy decisions."
Or let Denny's advertise its Lumberjack Slam--4,460 mg of sodium-- next to the study by two doctors at the University of Alabama, that said "careful observations...have revealed only a weak relationship between sodium intake/excretion and blood pressure."
What gets a bigger rise out of you? The effort to regulate salt out of your savories? Or Big Salt?
I received a return phone call today from Dr. Logan, who vigorously disputes CSPI's claim that he is "a paid consultant" to Big Salt.
He wrote in an E-mail:
As I have stated to you and to all others that ask, I do not hold any research grants nor do I receive research support from the food industry or any salt organization. I am not a member of any speakers' bureau nor do I
accept any honoraria for talks that I give on nutritional or related matters. I hold no ownership in any business related to the food or salt industries. I do not accept fees or honoraria for any consultative advice
that I provide related to nutrition or salt."
CSPI says it based its terminology in part on a meta-analysis of salt research that Logan co-authored and published in a 1996 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study was funded in part
by $100,000 from Campbell's Institute for Research & Technology, which has ties to the soup company of the same name.
Logan acknowledged the grant from Campbell's and further responded: "I disclosed any perceived conflicts of interest related to our article in JAMA published in 1996 and my presentation in California in 1997. Both
disclosures were made voluntarily and are in the public domain.
CSPI spokesman Jeff Cronin said JACN should have done what JAMA did. "The point of the exercise is to encourage medical journals to publish conflicts of interest, not to demonize someone."
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