Fox's War On Health: “Salt Really Isn't That Bad For You” Edition

In keeping with Fox News' longstanding War on Health, Fox today defended another unhealthy practice: eating lots of salt. This morning on Fox & Friends, the co-hosts attacked the FDA for considering ways to get Americans to reduce their salt intake, with co-host Steve Doocy complaining that the “food police are rearing their head” and co-host Gretchen Carlson fearmongering that soon “we [will] now see that you can't eat salt in your own home, potentially”:

BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): I know you know the war on terror is going on, and you've accepted that. Can you accept the war on salt? It's official.


[T]here is an official war on salt, despite recent studies that show that salt really isn't that bad for you.

CARLSON: So the FDA has opened up now a formal inquiry into salt reduction, so what is that going to mean? Will we now see that you can't eat salt in your own home, potentially? I mean, you know, they've already done that with smoking, et cetera. Not really sure. The interesting thing is, some people are actually told to eat more salt -- like me. Eat more salt, your blood pressure is too low. So, you know, you can't really just apply this across the board for everyone.

KILMEADE: Right. Well, there's a new study that shows, they did a study, and they showed -- studied people over long term, 3,700 people. They showed over time, cardiovascular death rate was highest among those with less salt. Can you please put that in before we start a war on salt?

DOOCY: So the thing is, the science is not settled, and yet, the government has a bee in their bonnet. They want us to stop eating so much salt and sugar and stuff like that. The food police are rearing their head now that they have called for public comments on how to achieve salt reduction across the country. Goodie.

Yes -- “food police are rearing their head” because the FDA has called for “public comments.”


Doocy's use of the words “the science is not settled” is an immediate red flag to anyone who knows Fox's relationship with science. Fox often uses similar language to describe climate change, even though the science is settled; Media Matters revealed a leaked email in December 2010 that showed top Fox official Bill Sammon ordered news staff to cast doubt on climate change.

And, indeed, it's “settled” that most scientists agree a high salt intake is bad for you. While experts still debate what level of salt intake is appropriate, and who is most susceptible to its negative effects, most agree that high-salt diets can lead to increased risk of hypertension, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular disease. Here's reporting on a 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that found the number of heart attacks in the U.S. “could decline by up to 13 percent” if adults cut their daily salt intake by 3 grams (emphasis added):

If Americans cut their salt intake by just half a teaspoon per day, it would produce public health benefits on par with reducing high cholesterol, smoking, or obesity, a new study has found.

The number of heart attacks in the U.S. could decline by up to 13 percent if adults could just slash their daily salt intake by 3 grams, or about 1,200 milligrams of sodium, according to the study, which was published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. New cases of heart disease and the number of strokes could also be expected to decline, by up to 11 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Here's Time magazine reporting in 2009 that the American Medical Association calculated 150,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year by Americans halving their salt intake (emphasis added):

Over the years, Americans have become inured to salt. Most people have no idea how much salt they consume -- on average, about 9 to 12 g (or 3,600 to 4,800 mg of sodium) per person per day, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That's twice the amount recommended by the government.


Some salt is crucial for good health, of course -- to regulate blood pressure and assist with muscle and nerve function -- but too much (that is, at the levels we currently consume) can lead to hypertension, heart disease and stroke. If Americans halved their salt intake, as many as 150,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year, according to the American Medical Association. And new research presented March 11 by Bibbins-Domingo at the AHA's annual conference shows that even small reductions -- as little as 1 g of salt per day -- could have dramatic effects, saving 200,000 lives over the course of a decade.

Using a sophisticated computer model to analyze trends in heart disease over time among U.S. adults, Bibbins-Domingo and colleagues discovered that incremental population-wide reductions could drastically improve public health. Cutting out just 1 g of salt (or 400 mg of sodium) per person per day could prevent 30,000 cases of coronary heart disease across the U.S. population by 2019. Reducing consumption by half -- a more sizable 6 grams -- could prevent 1.4 million cases of heart disease during that same period.

So, what is Kilmeade talking about when he refers to “recent studies that show that salt isn't that bad for you?” It turns out there was indeed one European study published earlier this year that found high levels of salt intake were not associated with a higher rate of cardiovascular disease -- and, in fact, that low levels of salt were instead. However, the study's methodology was criticized. As reported on May 4:

Doctors and public health officials have been telling us for years that eating too much sodium can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke by raising blood pressure to unsafe levels. So how to explain a new study that suggests low salt intake actually increases the risk of dying from those causes?

The study, which followed 3,681 healthy European men and women age 60 or younger for about eight years, also found that above-average sodium intake did not appear to up the risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension) or dying of a heart attack or stroke.

The findings, reported in the May 4 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, certainly seem counterintuitive, especially in light of the ongoing public-health campaign to lower sodium consumption across the U.S. by urging restaurants and food manufacturers to curtail their use of the ingredient.


Salt lovers shouldn't break out their shakers just yet, though. A closer look at the findings shows that they're not as out of line with the low-sodium mantra as they might seem.

For starters, the participants' sodium consumption was gauged by measuring the sodium content of their urine over just one 24-hour period at the beginning of the study. Although this method is considered the gold standard for estimating sodium intake, that lone urine test may not provide an accurate snapshot of the participants' everyday intake over the full eight-year study, as the researchers themselves note.

Even more important, the participants had blood pressure in the normal range at the beginning of the study and were white, relatively young, and slimmer on average than the typical American. Past research has shown, however, that people with hypertension, blacks, older people, and heavier people tend to react more negatively to sodium.

“Maybe it would be better to pinpoint specific subgroups,” says Jerome Fleg, M.D., a medical officer in the division of cardiovascular sciences at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, in Bethesda, Maryland. “This is probably not the group that would get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of restricting sodium intake.”

The article also noted that the coauthors “emphasize[d] ... that people with hypertension -- who were not included in the study -- will still benefit from a low-salt diet.” Yet Fox still apparently cited this lone study, the meaning of whose findings are disputed, to claim that “studies ... show that really salt isn't that bad for you.”

Why is Fox defending salt? Well, apart from its usual knee-jerk desire to defend unhealthy habits, it sounds like Fox chairman Roger Ailes is a salt fan. As Howard Kurtz reported in his September 25 profile of Ailes:

Ailes is a brawler, albeit one with a preference for lavender shirts, and he isn't one to mince words. A mention of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg unleashes a tirade about the mayor's latest health crusade. “I like Bloomberg, he's a friend. But fuck him and the salt. I like salt. It's not his business.”

Perhaps this phony “food police” segment came straight from the top.