By Melinda Carstensen
Several popular chain restaurants have cut sodium from their menus, but a new report shows diners should take that news with a grain of salt.
Restaurants lowered the sodium content in their dishes by an average of 6 percent from 2009 to 2013, according to a report by The Center for Science in the Public Interest released this month.
CSPI reviewed 136 meals from 17 top U.S. chains over that four-year period. Some restaurants, such as Burger King, McDonald’s and Subway, reduced the amount of sodium on their menus, while others such as Jack in the Box, KFC and Red Lobster increased it.
See the List Here: The Seven Saltiest Meals in America
Salt is a silent killer. Nearly 67 million Americans, including two-thirds of people over age 60, have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That hypertension epidemic has led to an increase in strokes and heart attacks, which account for 40,000 to 90,000 deaths annually.
Britain’s government has set sodium reduction guidelines for companies, causing hypertension rates in that country to plummet. No federal legislation exists in the United States, but some companies such as Kraft and Mars have voluntarily pledged to slash sodium from their products.
Subway, Olive Garden and McDonald’s also have announced sodium-reduction plans in recent years.
"Across our highly diverse industry, restaurants are actively engaged in efforts to provide consumers with lower sodium options," the National Restaurant Association said in a statement. "Efforts to lower sodium are impacted by consumer preference (and) limited technology.”
According to the CSPI report, Subway reported the greatest success. In 2009, its foot-long ham sandwich with chips and a soda had 2,730 milligrams of sodium. In 2013, it had 1,895 milligrams.
Subway says that it has reduced sodium by 30 percent across its entire sandwich menu, an amount slightly higher than what the CSPI report shows, USA Today reports.
Some restaurant meals contain more than 5,000 milligrams of sodium. Red Lobster’s Admiral’s Feast with a Caesar salad, a creamy lobster topped mashed potato, cheddar bay biscuit and a Minute Maid Light Lemonade, was the most salt-laden dish reviewed, with 5,830 milligrams of sodium.
The CDC recommends that most adults should consume a maximum of 1,500 milligrams of salt daily. But the average American consumes about 4,000 milligrams.
Some restaurants have changed their menus since the CSPI study was completed.
Olive Garden spokesman Rich Jeffers told CNN that the restaurant has reduced sodium from the five meals analyzed in the report. Darden, the parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden, is aiming to cut sodium and calories from its meals by 20 percent by 2021.
The 17 companies reviewed had reduced sodium content by an average of 1.5 percent annually from 2009 to 2013. That’s progress, but it also may be cause to think twice before dining out if you’re watching your sodium intake.
"At that rate,” said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, “to get even a 30 percent reduction, it would take 20 years, which is crazy.”For the saltiest and least salty restaurant meals in America, check out CSPI’s full report.