Fast Food Saltier in U.S. than in Other Countries

April 16, 2012

Consuming too much sodium can raise blood pressure and contribute to hypertension, one of the leading risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In recent years, public health officials across the globe—including those in the U.K., Brazil, and New York City—have set voluntary salt-reduction targets for food companies.

In the U.K., the government’s push to reduce sodium began in earnest in 2006, and the relatively low sodium levels seen at U.K. restaurants in the study suggests the initiative may be working, says Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D., director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit institute in Philadelphia that specializes in taste research.

Salt has a number of properties besides taste enhancement that make it attractive to food manufacturers. Sodium is a preservative, and it also can also make certain foods easier to process. “Salt is the magic ingredient—it does all sorts of things to food,” Beauchamp says.

However, consumer taste is the bigger obstacle to sodium-reduction efforts. People in industrialized nations have become accustomed to saltier foods, and companies worry that reducing salt will make their products less competitive.

For that reason, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an independent nonprofit organization, has recommended a gradual, industry-wide sodium reduction in both packaged and restaurant foods. “Then people would acclimate to the change slowly and wouldn’t even notice it,” says Beauchamp, who served on the IOM committee that issued the recommendation in a 2010 report.

“Most of the science says if you reduce salt by 10% it’s completely unnoticeable,” Campbell says. “What we really want is very gradual reductions which don’t affect the consumer base. Consumers enjoy the food and the health of the population improves.”

Some fast-food chains have already begun cutting sodium. Danya Proud, a spokesperson for McDonald’s USA, pointed out in a statement that Campbell and his colleagues used nutritional info from 2010. Since then, Proud said, the company has cut the sodium content of its chicken items by 10%. (According to current nutritional info, Big Macs sold in the United States still contain 1,040 milligrams of sodium, as they did when the study was conducted.)

McDonald’s expects to reduce the sodium in all of its national menu items by an average of 15% by 2015, Proud said. “We are also listening to our customers, to ensure we continue to evolve to meet their taste and nutrition expectations.”

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