What is more harmful and dangerous to health - salt or sugar? Similarities and differences

Posted on Oct 25, 2022      54

The traditional view that salt causes high blood pressure is wrong. Statistics do not track this connection - but they note that excess sugar in the diet causes hypertension.

Traditionally, both salt and sugar are harmful substances (when consumed in excess) - bearing the name "white death". Excessive salt is commonly associated with high blood pressure, and a love of sugar with the development of diabetes.

However, recent scientific research suggests that the mechanism of salt’s effect on hypertension has long been misunderstood - in particular, the link between salt intake and high blood pressure is not as clear-cut. In fact, hypertension can be triggered by too much sweetness.

Which is worse, salt or sugar?

Table salt and sugar are similar - they are white loose substances added to food during cooking. But that’s only part of the picture. Most of the time, consuming excessive amounts of them is not in their pure form - but from prepared foods and ultra-processed foods.

For example, fruit juices contain a substantial amount of sugar, comparable to Coke - about 20-25 grams per glass, which is equivalent to 4 teaspoons. Salt is also included in juice and sodas, which ultimately provokes thirst and forces one to consume more sugary drinks.

It’s hard enough to look at excess salt in the diet or excess sugar separately. They usually overlap because we’re talking about an excess of ultra-processed foods. In fact, excess calories, saturated fats, and trans fats should be added to the list.

Norms and recommendations

With salt, the daily norm is 5 g (or 2.3 g converted to sodium, the key active ingredient in salt). As for sugar, recommendations for maximum figures depend on a person’s sex, age, and activity level. Plus, sugar is not an entire substance, but a mixture of glucose and fructose. Many carbohydrates (e.g., starch) are converted to glucose during digestion.

Most often, the upper limit of added sugar consumption is called 25-40 g per day - recommending limiting the total amount of carbohydrates in your diet to 30-40% of your daily calories (600-900 kcal or 150-225 g of carbohydrates, depending on your level of physical activity).

Effect of salt on the development of hypertension

For decades, excess salt in the diet was thought to cause excess fluid retention - which triggers blood vessel contractions and ultimately leads to high blood pressure and the development of hypertension.

However, a 2014 study in France involving 8,000 men and women found that the amount of salt consumed was not statistically associated with an increase in systolic blood pressure.

Note that we are talking about healthy young people - after the age of 50 and in the presence of concomitant diseases, the picture may change.

Relationship between salt and insulin

Insulin is a hormone of protein nature, produced in the pancreas. It allows carbohydrates to be used for energy and also affects blood glucose levels - helping to avoid excessively high or excessively low values.

Insulin increases the retention of sodium (the major component of table salt) in the kidneys - which increases fluid retention and, in the long term, provokes the development of hypertension. Other factors (such as insulin resistance) accelerate these processes.

What is really wrong with sugar?

A large-scale health analysis of almost 15,000 people showed that excessive consumption of added sugar is statistically associated with weight gain, risk of abdominal obesity, type 2 diabetes - as well as hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

The World Health Organization’s recommendations for sugar intake are significantly stricter than many dietitians’ advice - WHO standards allow only 10% of daily calories as sugar.

Bottom line - which is worse?

Unfortunately, the question of what is more harmful - salt or sugar - does not consider the big picture. Both substances are found in high amounts of ultra-processed foods that most people simply don’t realize.

It is more correct to talk about common dietary errors (excess calories, fast carbs and saturated fats, lack of fiber, vitamins and minerals) rather than the harm of a particular ingredient.

But if you boil it down to a direct comparison of health hazards, sugar is unequivocally more harmful than salt.