By Barbara Kessler
We all know that sodium in foods leads to high blood pressure, which contributes to myriad health problems, raising the risk of stroke, heart attacks and kidney disease.
High blood pressure, which affects more than half of Americans over age 50, is a big problem. Stipulated, ok?
So who's helping us dial back our sodium intake and who's not? A survey of 17 top restaurant chains by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has found that many fast food restaurants aren't helping, in fact, they're throwing us under the gurney. The sodium they're serving has risen in recent years, and frankly, you can just tell by looking at their food.
But first, let's look at those restaurants the CSPI applauded for powering down on sodium, in it’s report, Stalling on Salt: Restaurants are Still Loaded with Sodium.
LOOK WHO’S HELPING US WITH OUR BLOOD PRESSURE
Subway, where the spongy bread will leave you begging for a baguette (and until recently contained that "yoga mat" plasticizer, as did most bread at fast food joints and groceries), actually wins on this score. Subway sammies and combo packs continue to get lower in sodium content, outperforming most competing fast food fare in taking our cardiovascular health to heart.
"Subway showed dramatic progress between 2009 and 2013, reducing sodium in every one of the 10 meals reviewed in the study," CSPI reported.
For example, Subways Footlong Ham Sandwich, a bag of Lay’s Classic Potato Chips, and a Diet Coke shaved its total sodium down to 1,895 milligrams in 2013, from 2,730 mg of sodium in 2009.
To put that in perspective, that amount of sodium is still a lot. It's more than the 1500 mg per day that Americans in high risk groups should be eating, such as people over age 50, African-Americans, and those who have high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease. Still, it’s good, because it’s not bad, all things considered.
That’s because Americans are getting more sodium than they need, about 3,300 mg per day on average, when they should be consuming no more than 2,300, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Burger King and McDonald's also posted gains in the sodium content study, and by that we mean, reductions. Both chains significantly reduced the sodium they're handing out with their burgers and fries. (Though they're still handing out burgers and fries.)
"The three Burger King kids’ meals in the study were 40 percent lower in sodium on average in 2013 than in 2009, largely because the chain switched its default side dish from French Fries to Apple Slices, though it also reduced sodium in its Double Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, and Chicken Nuggets," CSPI reported.
Micky D's made strides by reducing the sodium in its dipping sauces and salad dressings. But honestly, this was low-hanging fruit. One sauce dipped from 740 mg to 430 mg.
WHO’S NOT HELPING
Alas, many fast food perpetrators purveyors, remain firmly committed to pickling us in sodium chloride.
KFC and Jack in the Box logged sodium increases of 12.4 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively, in the sample of meals reviewed, CSPI reported.
But hey, you knew that crispy chicken wasn't just luring you with a sexy leg.
KFC legs aren't the only problem, however. Its breasts are pretty briny too. "A meal of an Extra Crispy Chicken Breast, an Extra Crispy Whole Wing, a biscuit, BBQ Baked Beans, Macaroni Salad, and a medium Pepsi had 3,110 mg of sodium."
Quick math check. Yes, that would be one meal with more than the daily allowance of sodium, and double what folks over 50 should be downing in a day.
But wait, it's not just the already-suspect drive-throughs that are to blame. CSPI also looked at several sit-down establishments and found that you could easily get your sodium fix in air-conditioning.
Naming names, the CSPI fingered Red Lobster, Chili’s, and Olive Garden for having meals that rack up around 5,000 mg of sodium, or about what people should eat in two days, or over six meals instead of one.
Red Lobster’s Admiral’s Feast is salty enough for a follow-up banquet of blood pressure meds. According to CSPI it clocks in at 5,830 mg of sodium.
Dining out definitely seems to be a big part of this sodium problem.
Even restaurants that consider themselves up a notch, are serving up sodium as if its harmless, which it is in small doses. That's not what you get in an order of P.F. Chang's Dan Dan Noodles, which self-reports that it has 6,190 mg of sodium.
You may as well stay at home and eat eight cans of Campbell's soup.
Joe's Crab Shack can hook you up with sodium too, in a meal called "The Big Hook Up" that will leave you thirsting for water to flush your kidneys.
The Hook Up seduces you with 7,610 mgs of sodium.
Speaking of hook ups, what the CSPI wants is for the government to get out of bed with the restaurant industry and start enforcing the rules, instead of voluntary guidelines on sodium.
CSPI wants the FDA to "set reasonable limits on the amounts of sodium that can be used in various categories of food."
The Institute of Medicine agrees that the restaurants cannot be counted on to watch out for our health interests and endorses having the FDA set upper limits for sodium content.
On Tuesday, Michael Jacobson, the executive director of CSPI, wrote to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to argue for sodium rules. He quoted Dr. Jane E. Henney, chair of the IOM committee:
"For 40 years we have known about the relationship between sodium and the development of hypertension and other life-threatening disease, but we have had virtually no success in cutting back the salt in our diets."