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"Help keep your family goiter free"

Posted May 01 2009 10:09pm
People ask, "If I need iodine, should I go back to iodized salt?"

First of all, how did this notion of iodized salt originate?

In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover was appointed head of the FBI, Marlon Brando and Doris Day were born, and Calvin Coolidge was elected President of the United States. Half of American households had a car, while 1 in 4 Americans were illiterate.

In the 1920s, cities were a fraction of their current size and a third of the U.S. population, or 36 million people, lived in small rural communities.

Goiters were also wildly prevalent in 1924. Up to a third of the population in some areas of the country, particularly the Midwest, suffered from goiters, thyroid glands that enlarged due to lack of iodine.

Goiters were not only unsightly, but sometimes grotesque, causing a visible bulge in the front of the neck. Occasionally, they would grow so big that it compressed adjacent structures, like the trachea, and would have to be surgically removed. Goiters were commonly associated with thyroid dysfunction, especially low thyoid or hypothyroidism, that resulted in low IQ's in schoolchildren, debilitation in adults. Women of childbearing age delivered retarded children.

So iodine deficiency in early 20th century America was a big problem. How to solve this enormous public health problem in a large nation without television, few radios, no internet, with a largely rural and often illiterate population?

Thus was iodized salt born, a simple, technologically available solution that could be implemented on a large scale nationwide at low cost. The FDA chose this route in 1924, figuring that it was the best way to ensure that most Americans could obtain sufficient iodine through liberal use of iodized salt. Public health officials urged Americans to use salt. Morton's salt label proudly bore the slogan "Help keep your family goiter free!"

It worked. Goiters largely became a thing of the past.

How about today? The American Heart Association recommends limiting salt, recently announcing that they would like to limit intake to 1500 mg per day. The American Medical Association has been lobbying the FDA to set lower salt limit guidelines. The FDA has been clamping down on food manufacturers to reduce the quantity of salt in processed foods.

Why limit salt? The concern is that there are segments of the population (not all) that are salt sensitive, particularly African Americans, people with certain genetic forms of high blood pressure, conditions that cause water retention, and any degree of heart or kidney failure. Salt in these peoplem, in fact, can be disastrous.
So adding iodine to salt was the solution to epidemic goiter. And it worked.

But salt is not a perfect solution, just one that served its purpose back in 1924. What we need is a 21st century solution.
You will find that in the various iodine supplements at your health food store. My favorite is kelp--inexpensive, available, and a form that mimics the way Japanese people obtain iodine (though by eating seaweed, rather than with tablets).

Image of kelp courtesy Wikipedia
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