Last year, a major promotional campaign in the UK warned of the dangers of high salt intake, linking it to increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. But the campaign, run by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), was widely criticised by the salt lobby as “government-funded propaganda” that unfairly demonised the product. So just whom are we supposed to believe, asks Chris Jones.

In contrast to the strident prognostications of doom splashed across billboards and in the pages of magazines during last year’s CASH campaign, the European salt producers’ association prefers to take a far more low-key approach, putting its side of the argument over a convivial lunch in a plush Brussels hotel.

But it is no less forceful for all of that: “There is no need for a healthy population to cut down its salt intake,” claims Robert Speiser, managing director of the EU Salt association. The data on the impact of salt on health has been manipulated “for political reasons”, he says. “The results of 1988 Intersalt study, the biggest of its kind to date, did not show that higher salt intake was linked to increased health risk, but this conclusion is out of kilter with the politics, so the data has been massaged.”

And it is not just Speiser who says so: EU Salt invited its own independent scientific expert, Professor Karl-Ludwig Resch of the Balneology and Spa Research Institute in Bad Elster, Germany, to present his interpretation of the data. His presentation is somewhat disingenuous: “Is it bad science just because it is presented by the salt lobby?” he asks, before going on to show that it is in fact CASH that has based its arguments on bad – or at the very least, highly subjective – scientific data.

But Resch also recognises that the data can be just as easily manipulated by the pro-salt lobby, and that the question is not one of absolutes. “The fact is that we simply have no satisfactory answer about whether salt is good or bad, and we may never have one. It is so difficult to subject people to single component tests, focusing solely on their salt intake, because what we eat is so closely linked to lifestyle and other factors. Is it better to tell consumers to eat low-salt hotdogs or to tell them to reduce their convenience food intake and do more cooking at home, or to take more exercise?”

And therein lies the rub: the salt debate – indeed the entire healthy eating debate – has been polarised between foods that are ‘bad’ and foods that are ‘good’, despite the growing body of evidence to suggest that most products are neither one nor the other, and that there a large number of other factors that can increase the risk of heart disease, hypertension or any other malady. In today’s ‘sound bite’ society, the argument has reduced to the lowest common denominator: the ‘eat our product, it’s good for you’ argument from the food industry is countered by the ‘how can you trust them – listen to us instead’ answer from the health lobby, and the poor, confused consumer is left stuck in the middle.

Yet who wins out in the end is likely to depend not on which side is most persuasive, but, as EU Salt ruefully concedes, which has the deepest pockets. The question is whether the health of the nation will have been improved along the way.