Sodium in restaurants meals ‘alarmingly high’: study

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If you’re eating out, it’s likely you’re consuming more salt than you should, a new study concludes. A new study looking at food served in Canadian chain restaurants revealed ‘alarmingly high’ sodium levels.

What surprised researchers most was that fast food restaurants weren’t the worst culprits: the restaurants with table service were the ones that topped the charts.

The study found that a single meal item with no side dish from a sit-down restaurant (such as a hamburger, sandwich or stir fry) contained on average 1,455 mg of sodium per serving, while fast food meal items contained 1,011 milligrams. Side dishes contained, on average, 736 milligrams of sodium. As many as 40 per cent of sit-down restaurant meal items exceeded the daily tolerable upper limit for sodium — and that doesn’t include the side dishes that would normally be consumed with a main dish.

Study author Mary L’Abbé, Chair of the U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences and PhD student Mary Scourboutakos collected nutrition information from chain restaurant websites in 2010 and 2011 and analyzed 4,044 meal items. Sodium levels were compared to the daily adult adequate intake level of 1,500 milligrams and the tolerable upper limit of 2,300 mg per day.

Since Canada has not yet established targets or implemented a reduction strategy for the restaurant sector, L’Abbé and Scourboutakos used the U.S. targets.

 “We expected sodium levels to be high, but we didn’t expect them to be as alarmingly high as we found in the study,”  Scourboutakos said.

“Because of the prevalence of eating out, as well as the high rates of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, addressing the exceedingly high sodium levels in restaurant foods is essential in order to decrease the burden of chronic disease,” said their report in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

On average, individual sit-down restaurant menu items contained 1455 mg sodium/serving (or 97% of the AI level of 1500 mg/day). Forty percent of all sit-down restaurant items exceeded the AI for sodium and more than 22% of sit-down restaurant stir fry entrées, sandwiches/wraps, ribs, and pasta entrées with meat/seafood exceeded the daily UL for sodium (2300 mg). Fast-food restaurant meal items contained, on average, 1011 mg sodium (68% of the daily AI), while side dishes (from sit-down and fast-food restaurants) contained 736 mg (49%). Children’s meal items contained, on average, 790 mg/serving (66% of the sodium AI for children of 1200 mg/day); a small number of children’s items exceeded the children’s daily UL. On average, 52% of establishments exceeded the 2012 NSRI density targets and 69% exceeded the 2014 targets.

The research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canadian Stroke Network and the University of Toronto.

Federal action on sodium reduction

The study concluded that a population-wide sodium reduction strategy needs to address the high levels of sodium in restaurant foods.
It’s not the first time sodium has been put on the federal agenda. A sodium working group presented recommendations in 2010, but they have not yet been implemented. NDP health critic Libby Davies’ private member’s bill C-460 will be put to vote this May 2013. The bill asks that the government implement the 2010 recommendations. If passed, it would require food manufacturers to meet sodium reduction targets. The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association is opposed to the bill, saying it is working on sodium reduction with food manufacturers.

 

Click here to learn more about bill C-460.

 

 

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