The 25 largest restaurant chains in the United States have not reduced sodium content on their menus according to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), despite calls from the Institute of Medicine to do so.
Most people take in more than 75 percent of their daily sodium from packaged foods and restaurant meals. Depending on which source you look at, Americans consume between 3,300 and 4,000 milligrams of sodium a day. The recommended amount of sodium a person should consume is no more than 2,300 milligrams (or about 1 teaspoon of salt), and that amount is even less if a person is African American, over 51 years of age, at risk for high blood pressure or suffers from diabetes, hypertension or kidney disease.
Although as a whole the food industry hasn’t done much to curb the sodium levels in their foods, the report, “Restaurants Can’t Shake the Salt,” also notes that some chains and food types have seen small amounts of progress.
The good: Burgers, fried potatoes and soups all saw a decrease in average sodium content. Outback Steakhouse reduced sodium levels by 9 percent – the best progress of any of the restaurants analyzed. Some chains did drastically cut sodium in some menu items, for example Olive Garden’s Caprese Flatbread (a 63 percent decrease) and Red Lobster’s French fries (a 57 percent decrease).
The bad: Sodium levels in pizza items increased by 2 percent, and appetizers, sides and sandwiches had no change. IHOP increased sodium on its menu by 9 percent, the worst of all 25 restaurants analyzed. And according to the report, average menu items at sit-down restaurants like Applebee’s or Olive Garden still “contain as much or more sodium than the majority of Americans should consume in an entire day.”
Sodium intake for kids shouldn’t exceed 1,200 milligrams a day according to the report. But CSPI found that six chains all offer menu items with sodium levels that met or exceeded half the daily recommendation.
Overall, kids’ menu items showed a decrease of 8 percent in sodium levels, but when restricted to only menu items present during both surveys there was actually an increase of 2 percent. The researchers attribute this to the addition of lower-sodium items and not changes to existing items. And though some chains including Arby’s, Red Lobster and Subway all saw decreases in the sodium content of kids’ meals, the average sodium levels of a kids’ meal from Applebee’s and Chili’s both increased by a whopping 21 percent and 12 percent, respectively.
The take-away? From 2012 to 2014, there was only an overall 1 percent decline in the sodium levels. What’s clear, the report notes, is that there is “a lack of sustained, across-the-board reduction in sodium in the restaurant industry.”
"As a whole, the nation's leading restaurants are failing miserably when it comes to their patrons' heart health," said Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI executive director. "And, unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has failed for decades to tell the food industry to lower sodium and by how much."
The FDA recommends that in restaurants you should speak up to make sure you’re managing your sodium intake effectively:
“Ask to see the nutrition information in restaurants and choose a lower-sodium option. Ask for your meal to be prepared without salt and request that sauces and salad dressings be served “on the side,” then use less of them. You can also reduce your portion size – less food means less sodium! For example, ask the server to put half of your meal in a take-out container before it comes to your table or split an entrée with a dinner companion.”
For more information about sodium and its effects, visit the FDA’s online factsheet here. To read a full copy of “Restaurants Can’t Shake the Salt,” click here.
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