Insights and Impact

Which is Worse: Sugar or Salt? 

Margo Wootan, president, MXG Strategies; former vice president for nutrition, Center for Science in the Public Interest; and adjunct professor, AU Department of Health Studies

Illustrated image of Margo Wootan

Sugar is the nutritional villain of the day for good reason. The average daily intake of added sugars—266 calories—is enough to push many of us to being overweight or obese.

Two-thirds of added sugars come from sugared drinks, sweet baked goods, ice cream, and candy. Companies relentlessly promote these foods, nudging us about 25 different times during a trip to the grocery store to buy sugary drinks. To sell more, they’ve also increased portions. (A 20-ounce cola blows a day’s added sugars budget, plus a third of tomorrow’s.)

Unlike sugar in candy, salt is hidden in many foods. Some—like bread—don’t even taste salty. And fast-food burgers often have more salt than the fries.

The problem isn’t our saltshaker; 70 percent of our sodium is added to food by manufacturers and restaurants. And while companies generate consumer confusion by making the dangers of salt seem inconclusive, science indicates otherwise. The American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 100 studies agree that the amount of salt processed into the US food supply is raising our blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Which is worse? It’s a hard choice, but the stealthy addition of salt by food companies—and the obfuscation of its harms—make it the lesser-known health hindrance.

More responsible corporate practices, smaller portion sizes, and healthier product formulations would keep both salt and added sugars in the US food supply at safer levels—and enable more people to eat well.