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'Pass the potato chips': Reaction to pro-salt study mixed, confused

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The link between too much salt and high blood pressure is as accepted as cigarettes and cancer, or fatty foods and heart disease.

That's why a controversial new study published earlier this week is sending shockwaves among medical experts and consumers who are grappling to understand the possible implications.

Researchers in that study found people who ate low amounts of salt actually faced higher risks of dying of heart disease and that people who eat high amounts of salt don't face a higher chance of developing high blood pressure.

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The findings have sparked confusion, outrage and even glee from individuals now questioning whether it would be so bad to load extra salt onto their meals. Twitter has played host to much of the debate, with new posts popping up nearly every minute from users who saw news of the study.

One Twitter user wrote in response to the findings, "Woohoo, pass the shaker!" while another wrote, "Studies show that high salt diets actually decrease risk of heart disease. I love salt."

Dana McCauley, culinary director at Janes Family Foods, a company known for its selection of often sodium-rich frozen chicken breasts, battered fish and meatballs tweeted "Pass the potato chips!" Thursday morning.

Those responses are music to the ears of the Salt Institute, a lobby group which has promoted the health benefits of salt for years.

The institute has stepped up its advocacy of salt in recent years in response to efforts in Canada and elsewhere to adopt sodium reduction strategies.

On Thursday, the institute's official Twitter feed said "After new pro-salt medical study, FDA and Bloomberg don't have a leg to stand on," referencing efforts by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lower salt consumption.

But at the same time, the medical establishment is quickly hitting back to discount the new study before individuals decide to abandon sodium-reduced diets and the idea too much salt is a bad thing.

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The American Heart Association, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Harvard School of Public Health and a wide array of prominent medical experts have criticized the study for its flawed methods and inconclusive evidence.

For instance, the Nutrition Source, a website published by the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote that the "only problem is that the study's conclusions are most certainly wrong."

Among the criticisms launched by medical experts are the fact the study participants were too young - the majority in their early 40s at the start of the study - to accurately determine health risks of sodium consumption. (Those risks tend to increase with age, particularly after a person reaches middle age).

Of the 4,000 study participants, only 84 died of cardiovascular-related events, an amount "too small to support the authors' sweeping conclusions," Nutrition Source wrote.

What does all of this mean? Regardless of how tempting it might be, it's probably not a good idea to increase salt intake as a result of one positive study.

How much salt do you eat? Will your sodium consumption change because of this study?

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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