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Adding iodine to salt is making Americans smarter

Iodine deficiency is known to impair the brain’s development. Ever since the introduction of iodised salt in 1924, IQs have risen by about 3 points every decade.

Salt in a pestle
Salt in a pestle

IODISED SALT IS so common that we barely notice it. Few people know why it even exists.

Iodine deficiency can hinder the brain’s development. According to a new study, its introduction to American diets in 1924 had an effect so profound that it raised the country’s IQ.

Iodine is currently not always found in table salt in Ireland. A study published in the Irish Journal of Medical Science found that low level of iodine consumption by pregnant women in Ireland was a “cause for concern”.

A new working paper by James Feyrer, Dimitra Politi, and David N. Weilby from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), an American research organisation, finds that the population in iodine-deficient areas saw IQs rise by a full standard deviation, which is 15 points, after iodised salt was introduced.

Since one quarter of the population lived in those areas, that corresponds to a 3.5 point increase nationwide. IQs have risen by about 3 points every decade, something called the Flynn effect, so iodisation of salt may be responsible for a full decade’s worth of increasing IQ in the U.S.

If a mother is iodine deficient while she’s pregnant, the cognitive development of the foetus is impeded, and the effects are irreversible. To this day, the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 50 million people suffer some kind of mental impairment related to iodine deficiency.

Before iodised salt, people were deficient based almost entirely on geography, whether the water and soil in their area had enough of the micronutrient. Diseases resulting from the deficiency, most commonly goiter, or swelling of the thyroid, were extremely common.

The differences by geography were vast, making the effects easy to isolate. Seawater, for example, is rich in iodine, but glaciers depleted iodine rich soil in places like Michigan:

(Image Credit: Feyrer, Politi, and Weil)

The mental impacts were unknown, the program was started to fight goiter, so these effects were an extremely fortunate unintended side effect.

To figure out the effects, the researchers used the data from the Army General Classication Test (AGCT) given to people who enlisted during World War 2. That covers a wide group of men born precisely at the time iodised salt was introduced (1920-1927), which allowed comparison of low and high iodine areas.

The Air Force received enlistees who scored significantly higher on the AGCT, and the number of men who scored well and went to the Air Force from low iodine areas dramatically increased after iodised salt was introduced. The estimates of intelligence increases are based on that data.

Here’s the author’s chart that shows the boost in Air Force enlistment rates:

(Image Credit: NBER)

Despite these positive effects, there were some negative side effects as well. People who suffer long-term iodine deficiency can actually end up with from hyperthyroidism when it’s introduced to their diet, so deaths spiked for a few years. However, the aggregate effect has been extremely positive.

Max Nisen

Read: 7 foods that are good for you (despite their bad reputation)

More: Are TV dinners healthier than home-cooked meals?

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