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Fast Food Chains Dish Out More Salt per Serving in the U.S.


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fast food hamburger salt

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/cookelma

The fast food industry has gotten knocked for selling high-fat, high-sodium and high-sugar fare, a major contributor to the bourgeoning obesity and diabetes epidemics.

Many chains have responded by offering salads, wraps and fresh fruit alongside their burgers, pizzas and fries. New York City and in the U.K. have instituted “voluntary” salt-reduction programs for food makers; in response some companies claim to be cutting back on the sodium as much as they can. But due to their high-volume production, these large multi-national corporations can’t cut the salt much further, they have contended, because it is not “technically feasible” with their current food processing processes.

A new study of more than 2,100 dishes in six countries finds, however, that the same fast-food chain will serve up vastly different quantities of salt depending on the country it is slinging burgers (or pizza or subs or drumsticks) in.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. dishes from six chains (Burger King, Domino’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Subway) generally contained more salt (both per overall serving and per 100 grams of food) than the same menu items in Australia, France, New Zealand and the U.K.

A Big Mac, for example, has 2.6 grams of salt in the U.S. versus 2.1 grams in the U.K. Chicken nuggets have an even wider disparity: a serving of about six nuggets contains 1.5 grams of salt in the U.S. and less than half of that in the U.K. (0.6 g). The findings were published online April 16 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

“Although some differences are to be expected,” the study authors note, “there is a clear opportunity for widespread reformulation of products toward the lower end of the rang of salt content.” And because companies are always in the process of reformulating their products anyway, a pinch less salt should not be a big disruptor.

These authors and other researchers advocate for a slow, mandatory reduction in salt content for all, which, they contend, consumers likely won’t even notice.

Doctors recommend that adults eat less than 2.4 grams of salt each day—about one teaspoon. The authors of the new paper, led by Elizabeth Dunford of the University of Sydney, found that menu items often contained many times that amount in a single serving, including salads with 7 grams of salt, sandwiches with 8 grams, and a pizza with 10 grams—four days’ worth of salt in a single serving.

Of course salt, is not the only thing keeping us from staying slim and healthy. Americans on the whole eat far too many processed carbohydrates and excess fats. And a large meta-analysis published last year suggested that there was little proof that cutting back on salt would lower the chance that a person would suffer from stroke, heart attack or death. Another 2011 study noted that the balance of sodium and potassium might be more important for heart health than sodium levels alone.

But the new findings do show that McDonald’s is able to build a healthier burger after all. In fact in some countries, it’s already flippin’ ‘em.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Neil5150 2:12 pm 04/16/2012

    “Another 2011 study noted that the balance of sodium and potassium might be more important for heart health than sodium levels alone.”

    We evolved from saltwater creatures, the body is fully able to regulate salt, just need potassium.
    The real issue is the food industry stopped using iodized salt in food processing, 2 billion people suffer from this deficiency; many in the western world. Iodine regulates the thyroid hormones, which is essential for brain development.

    Link to this
  2. 2. xbig_bangx@yahoo.com 3:00 pm 04/16/2012

    I think scientists should also look into the unintended consequences of forcing fast-food companies to change into a less salt-based preserving system. With mass production comes the need to either: A) preserve food by salt or other substances, potentially more harmful, or B) reduce the time it takes for food to reach customers, which inadvertently increase prices, at least with current technology. To some extent, the statement “better foods cost more” seems to be correct. Isn’t it better to raise consumer awareness rather than forcing companies to change their menus?
    It is easy to point out the destructive effects of current systems. But there is a bigger question for which scientists sometimes fail to answer: What are the alternatives? And are they more harmful than the current one?

    Link to this
  3. 3. marclevesque 5:34 pm 04/16/2012

    @Neil5150

    “The real issue is the food industry stopped using iodized salt in food processing”

    The idea is not to stop but to reduce.

    I’m also all for balanced diets that include potassium.

    @xbig_bangx

    “With mass production comes the need to either: A) preserve food by salt or other substances, potentially more harmful”

    I hope not because that would mean nuggets in the U.K. which have about half the salt as those in the US have replaced the salt with “a potentially more harmful substance”

    I worked in a fast food joint and we used a lot of frozen foods and ingredients so we didn’t need to increase the shelf life of the food we served with extra salt but that was only my experience at one restaurant.

    “Isn’t it better to raise consumer awareness rather than forcing companies to change their menus?”

    Yeah. But maybe adding the total salt per serving to the menu in a simple and readable fashion, if the salt amount is above x, would address most concerns.

    Link to this
  4. 4. shorewood 3:39 pm 04/17/2012

    I believe that the author has some facts / beliefs wrong. Salt is not necessarily bad for human health.

    I have been eating “too much” salt for at least sixty years and putting up with people telling me that salt is bad for me. So, I appreciate research that shows that “too much” salt is okay. Within the past year or so, there was a major, major study that showed exactly that. Unfortunately, I did not keep a record of it.

    Does anyone else remember it?

    Link to this
  5. 5. marclevesque 7:56 pm 04/17/2012

    “So, I appreciate research that shows that “too much” salt is okay”
    Yeah, nuanced. Not everyone reacts the same to amount x of salt or changes in salt levels.
    I think the author of this article might have include a link (“a large meta-analysis published last year”) to the Scientific American story you are looking for:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=its-time-to-end-the-war-on-salt&page=2

    Link to this
  6. 6. shorewood 2:12 pm 04/18/2012

    Yep, marclevesque, that’s the article.

    Thanks.

    Link to this

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