Nets Slam Salt, Ignore Contrary Views in More Than 93 Percent of Stories

‘Growing chorus’ of scientists say salt in diet is beneficial, contrary to federal guidelines.

Media coverage of food has become as tough to swallow as a piece of gristle. Cholesterol, food dyes, salt and more dominate headlines -- even though news stories often can’t decide if those things are good or bad for us. Now the Obama administration is moving to practically ban trans fat, an ingredient once promoted as a “health product.”

This follows some embarrassing disclosures about how salt might be far safer than Americans have been led to believe. Journalists and regulators have been critical of salt for years. Two government departments have told the public through their Dietary Guidelines for Americans report to consume less salt. ABC, CBS and NBC  often repeated this claim uncritically. But health experts have recently called the recommendation into question. Some doctors have even said that reducing salt consumption “might actually be dangerous,” according to the April 6, Washington Post.

“The current [salt] guidelines are based on almost nothing,” former American Heart Association (AHA) President Suzanne Oparil told the Post. “Some people really want to hang onto this belief system on salt. But they are ignoring the evidence.”

Not only has the government ignored this evidence, so did the broadcast news networks most of the time. Since preliminary recommendations for the last round of federal guidelines were released nearly five years ago, ABC, CBS and NBC have barely mentioned any pro-salt views or criticism of the guidelines. The guidelines came out  June 15, 2010. During that time, the networks’ evening newscasts portrayed salt as nutritionally harmful without citing any other opinions in 93.3 percent of stories (28 out of 30) between June 1, 2010, and April 24, 2015.

In lieu of meaningful debate, the networks promoted claims about “dangerous amounts” of salt in the American diet, including salt’s supposed link to “one in ten deaths in this country.” They also hyped efforts by nutrition police like First Lady Michelle Obama who have demanded reduced sodium in children’s diets.

Scientists say humans ‘hard-wired’ for high-salt diet, while low-sodium diet ‘harmful’

The networks have promoted the idea that salt is harmful as the feds claimed in their dietary guidelines, but others argued just the opposite.

“Sodium is necessary for preventing dehydration, for proper transmission of nerve impulses and for normal functioning of cells,” science journalist Marta Zaraska wrote in the May 5, 2015, Washington Post. “If we ate no sodium at all, we would die.”

American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) Acting President Dr. Gilbert Ross said the current federal guidelines on salt far undercut natural levels. Ross said that humans are “hard-wired” to consume between 3,500 mg and 4,000 mg of sodium every day. He disagreed with the government recommendation of 2,300 mg sodium daily intake, and no more than 1,500 mg for certain groups.

“To try to cut that [natural level] in half, or less, is both fruitless and more likely to harm than benefit,” Ross said in an ACSH article April 21, 2014.

University of California-Davis nutrition professor Dr. David McCarron argued that “public policy can’t overcome biology” in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal April 9, 2015.

“A specific range of sodium is needed to maintain adequate blood flow to the body’s critical organs, and our brains know when more or less salt is necessary,” McCarron said.

According to more than 50 studies, he explained that “sodium intake ranged from 2,800 to 5,000 milligrams a day and averaged 3,700 milligrams a day—or about what Americans consume on average today.” He added that consuming less than 2,800 mg a day led to increased risk of stroke.

Writing in Scientific American on July 8, 2015, City University of New York journalism professor and Slate columnist Melinda Wenner Moyer noted that “low-salt diets could have side effects: when salt intake is cut, the body responds by releasing renin and aldosterone, an enzyme and a hormone, respectively, that increase blood pressure.”

Numerous health experts agreed that despite this evidence, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) are unlikely to budge on their recommendation to limit daily salt intake this year, The Washington Post reported.

Preliminary guidelines proposed by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in February suggested that the federal government maintain its previous recommendation.

ABC ignores opposing viewpoints on salt

Like the HHS advisory committee ABC World News also refused to budge in its opposition to salt.

Even though the network was aware that medical experts criticized recommendations to decrease salt consumption and wrote about it on its website, its television newscasts did not include criticism.

ABC News health and medical reporter Liz Neporent published an article on the ABC News website April 7, 2015, that included criticisms of recommendations to reduce salt intake. However, neither Good Morning America nor World News covered the story during the broadcasts that day.

Neporent said “a growing chorus of medical and nutritional experts has begun to push back” against the claim that consuming salt led to negative health effects. She cited Cleveland Clinic chairman of cardiovascular medicine Dr. Steven Nissen in the article as one such expert.

“We have been stuck in a time warp with this advice,” Nissen said. “There is no solid evidence to support the current recommendations.”

World News failed to include opinions from experts like Nissen during its broadcasts. Previous ABC reports argued Americans had too much salt in their diets.

On March 22, 2013, ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser said that Americans consumed “extremely dangerous amounts of salt.” Anchor David Muir described a “new study out of Harvard linking one in ten deaths in this country to excessive salt” during the same segment.   

Former World News anchor Diane Sawyer introduced a story about salt consumption by ABC News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi on the broadcast April 18, 2011. Sawyer claimed that unspecified “studies” said that Americans reducing their daily salt intake by half a teaspoon “would save the nation $24 billion a year in healthcare costs.”

During the report, Alfonsi interviewed Washington Hospital Center cardiologist Dr. Roquell Wyche, who compared consuming salt to smoking.

“Reducing the amount of sodium that you have every day gives you the same benefit to your heart as quitting smoking,” Wyche said.

During World News June 5, 2012, Sawyer lauded ABC’s parent company Disney for its decision to “no longer run junk food ads” during its children’s programming. General assignment correspondent Reena Ninan said Michelle Obama called the move a “game changer” at an event with Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger. Ads were forced to “meet strict nutritional standards on calories, portion size, sodium, sugar and saturated fat,” Ninan said. There was no mention that current levels of sodium might actually be safe.

Another World News report from June 25, 2010, quoted the director of the media’s favorite food police group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Executive Director Dr. Michael Jacobson. CSPI is a left-wing, alarmist group that claims to be about nutrition and health.

During the story, former ABC News correspondent and current Good Morning America weekend host Ron Claiborne criticized a menu item at the restaurant Friendly’s because, among other reasons, of its “stunning” amount of sodium. Claiborne then quoted Jacobson, who described the item in question as “deadly.”

“It’s not the sort of thing people should be eating,” Jacobson said.

Salt has been on CSPI’s enemies list since 1981, but the group has targeted practically every kind of food during its history: from fresh produce, to eggs, bread and even drinking water.

CSPI even pushed the government to regulate trans fats and took credit for the FDA’s decision in 2013, even though it had promoted trans fats in the 1980s in order to get polyunsaturated fats out of food.

NBC and CBS barely include any debate about salt

On the other two networks, salt had little support.

NBC and CBS weren’t much better than ABC. Nightly News and Evening News each aired just a single story defending salt, as the attacks kept coming.

CBS News correspondent Mark Albert praised First Lady Michelle Obama and negatively portrayed Republicans, for their respective stances on salt during Evening News Dec. 13, 2014. Albert said one of Michelle Obama’s “signature causes” was mandating “healthier” school lunches, which included less sodium in foods.

Albert blamed House Republicans for “trying to roll those rules back because even though they led to healthier and lower calorie and lower-sodium meals and potentially lower rates of heart disease and stroke, it came at a [financial] cost.” He said House Republicans had “finally muscled through new rules” earlier that week to delay lower sodium requirements.

He also the first lady’s view that “any rollback would hurt kids.”

“You know, this is unacceptable,” she told Albert during the report. “It’s unacceptable to me, not just as first lady, but as a mother.”

Similarly, NBC’s Nightly News Jan. 25, 2012, covered her support for the “overhaul of the school lunch program.” NBC News Education Correspondent Rehema Ellis said that “new government regulations” forced schools “to cut back on sodium, sugar, saturated fats and trans fats.” Ellis’ report failed to offer any opposing viewpoints about salt intake or the regulations in question.

Now-suspended anchor Brian Williams introduced a Sept. 17, 2012, Nightly News story about Americans’ high blood pressure. Williams said that “the problem is starting with our kids taking in way too much salt, and the results are predictably bad.”

“Blood pressure in kids went up from 1.3 to 2.4 times normal, depending on salt intake,” former NBC News chief science and health correspondent Robert Bazell said during the same report.

During Nightly News Feb. 7, 2012, Williams repeated the claim by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that “9 out of 10 of us consume too much of it [salt].” Salt consumption, “of course, can lead to high blood pressure, often for good reason called the ‘silent killer,’” Williams added.

NBC News correspondent Tom Costello specifically linked salt consumption to fatalities at the end of the story claiming, “Cutting salt by a third could save 81,000 lives a year.”

But in multiple articles online, NBC News noted scientific studies that undermined these claims. “New research suggests that healthy people can eat about twice the amount of salt that’s currently recommended — or about as much as most people consume anyway,” NBC News Senior Health Editor Lisa Tolin and researcher Judy Silverman wrote on Aug. 13, 2014.

NBC News contributor Linda Carroll wrote in May 2011, that a recent study had come “to the surprising conclusion that too much salt might not raise the risk of cardiovascular disease complications after all. Making matters even more confusing, death rates appeared to be higher in those with lower sodium levels.”

Scientific flip flopping on nutrition

The scientific opinion has shifted on some major dietary issues, not just salt.

Look no further than the federal government’s suggested guidelines for cholesterol this year for evidence. Although the official government committee suggested sticking previous guidelines on salt consumption, it no longer recommended that Americans should restrict their cholesterol intake to just 300 mg per day.

That big change came after the committee reviewed the “many nutritional studies” about the “the supposed link between dietary cholesterol and levels of cholesterol in the blood,” ACSH said Feb. 11, 2015.

The scientific evidence has increasingly shown that eating foods like eggs and red meat containing dietary cholesterol fail to necessarily cause higher levels of “so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) in the blood,” according to ACSH.

In contrast, the tide only recently turned against trans fats and shifted so severely that Politico reported that the Obama administration is “expected to all but ban trans fat.” This ban would follow regulations that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed in November 2013, that Politico said “sent shock waves through the food industry.” The initial rules said that that trans fats “cannot legally be sold” without special FDA approval, according to the FDA’s website.

Ironically, trans fats were introduced as a good solution and viewed positively compared to other fats.

“But surprisingly, science has only been against trans fats for the past few decades,” The Atlantic said in a story Nov. 8, 2013. “Through the late 1980s, animal fat substitutes like Crisco and margarine were all the rage, and for a brief moment were even considered a health product.” CSPI actually promoted trans fats back then.

The seesaw about whether foods are healthy or unhealthy is worsened by the news media which havve played a major role in hyping food scares. They’ve touted junk science and turned to uncredentialed people as nutrition experts. Food Babe blogger Vani Hari has been a popular source for the networks on nutrition, although she admitted on her blog she has no formal training in this area.  

In March 2013, ABC and NBC launched a crusade against Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. The networks each ran stories promoting claims by Hari and 100 Days of Real Food blogger Lisa Leake based on outdated research. The two bloggers said Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 food dyes used in Kraft Macaroni and Cheese led to hyperactivity and other health problems in children.

The bloggers had cited a CSPI study. Other experts dismissed the CSPI study, but both Evening News and World News both promoted it in June 2008.

“The idea these food additives could cause hyperactivity has been around since the 1970s,” late ACSH President and Founder Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan told MRC Business in 2008. “The Food and Drug Administration still has on their website that there’s no evidence to suggest that these trace colors are posing behavioral or any other problems.”

Even ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser admitted on Good Morning America March 8, 2013, that “the studies that have looked at this are not very strong. There’s nothing that I see that raises a real concern about these dyes.” However, his response took up only 6 seconds of a 2 minute and 37 second promotion of the bloggers’ crusade against Kraft.

CSPI has specialized in promoting an extreme anti-food agenda and scary warnings. These warnings have encompassed practically every kind of food and beverage, including water, milk, coffee, bread, eggs, sugar, salt and many others.

The group often promotes more dietary regulations and taxes on what it considers “unhealthy” foods in order to subsidize fruits and vegetables.

All three major networks and several leading newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, mentioned CSPI. Journalists frequently spewed CSPI’s anti-food industry opinions without qualifiers or emphasis on personal choices, portraying the group as a “consumer” protection service.

Methodology: MRC Business examined the stories during the evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC from June 1, 2010, through April 24, 2015 that mentioned salt or sodium in the context of nutrition. This period included the time leading up to the release of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) report released on June 15, 2010. Of the 30 resulting stories, only two included viewpoints that disagreed with recommendations to reduce salt intake.