May 11, 2009 -- Restaurant chains are overloading their meals with salt, increasing millions of customers' risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke, according to a consumer watchdog group.
Nearly 85% of the adult-sized meals at 10 popular chain restaurants have more than the recommended limit for total sodium intake per day, states the Center for Science in the Public Interest; nearly half had two days' worth of sodium in a single meal.
U.S. health recommendations urge healthy adults to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (the approximate equivalent of one teaspoon of table salt). However, for the 70% of U.S. adults who already have hypertension, are middle aged or older, or are African-American, the goal is 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day or less. That's because excess sodium intake is directly linked to an increase in blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
But some restaurants are marketing meals with salt levels thousands of milligrams beyond healthy diet recommendations, according to the report.
Among the restaurant industry's saltiest meals were:
- Red Lobster's "Admiral's Feast" at 7,106 milligrams of sodium. The meal includes lobster, Caesar salad with dressing, lobster-topped mashed potato, biscuit, and lemonade.
- Chili's Buffalo Chicken Fajitas and a Dr. Pepper at 6,916 milligrams of sodium.
- Chili's Honey Chipotle Ribs at 6,440 milligrams of sodium, which includes mashed potatoes with gravy, seasonal vegetables, and Dr Pepper.
- Olive Garden Tour of Italy lasagna at 6,176 milligrams of sodium, with bread stick, salad with house dressing, and a Coca-Cola.
- Olive Garden Chicken Parmigiana at 5,735 milligrams of sodium, with breadstick, salad with house dressing, and raspberry lemonade.
"These chains are sabotaging the food supply. They should cut back and give consumers the freedom to decide for themselves how much salt they want," Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says in a news release.
Mel Daly, MD, a geriatrician and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is especially worried about older Americans with hypertension. "Many elderly eat frequently at these restaurants because of convenience and cost. But the high sodium levels in many of these meals can lead to a spike in blood pressure and even precipitate heart failure in some individuals," Daly says in a news release.
Sodium in Kids' Meals
The group also identified five restaurant kids' meals containing more than twice the recommended daily sodium intake for kids of 1,200 milligrams in a single meal.
- Red Lobster Chicken Fingers, biscuit, fries, and raspberry lemonade, at 2,430 milligrams of sodium.
- Chili's Country Fried Chicken Crispers with rice and 1% milk at 2,385 milligrams of sodium.
- KFC Popcorn Chicken with macaroni and cheese, Teddy Grahams, and 2% milk at 2,005 milligrams of sodium.
- Jack in the Box Grilled Chicken Strips, Buffalo Sauce, fries, and 1% milk at 1,980 milligrams of sodium.
- Olive Garden Chicken Fingers, fries, and raspberry lemonade at 1,835 milligrams of sodium.
The group petitioned the FDA in 2005 to consider regulating the amount of salt in the U.S. food supply. The agency held a public meeting with consumer groups and companies in 2007 but has not moved to regulate salt or sodium in restaurant or packaged food.
Beth Johnson, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, says in a statement that the industry has made "tremendous strides" in the sodium content of restaurant food.
The group supports restaurant food labeling legislation that could make it easier for consumers to know what is in their food, Johnson says. "Our members have introduced a range of menu choices during the past year and will continue to explore new options and alternatives to meet the needs of consumers."
Until restaurants cut the salt content of their food, Jacobson urges consumers to eat out less, order smaller portions, or use the Internet to look up sodium content and other information on restaurant web sites before they go out.
Jacobson acknowledges that "about three" consumers in the whole country were likely to research a chain restaurant before dining out.
British Take Strides in Lowering Sodium
In Britain, where the government's Foods Standards Agency has made sodium reduction a priority, a 9% reduction in the nation's sodium intake has been documented since the start of that program. The five-year goal is a one-third reduction.
The program in Britain emphasizes public education and has been pressuring the food and restaurant industries to lower sodium content of foods. U.S. versions of McDonald's staples such as Chicken McNuggets, french fries, and Big Macs contain 57% more sodium, on average, than their British counterparts.