You already worry about the calories in fast food (at least, you know you should). Now the good folks at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are giving us something else to agonize over – the salt content of those calorie-laden fast-food meals.
The report couldn’t be more timely. Just last week, the Institute of Medicine released a report urging the Food and Drug Administration to set limits on the amount of sodium that’s acceptable in processed foods, and the FDA pledged to put pressure on the food industry. Sodium intake is important because too much salt can cause high blood pressure, an important risk factor for heart disease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s current dietary guidelines suggest that Americans limit their salt intake to 2,300 milligrams per day – about the equivalent of one teaspoon. The American Heart Assn. says a better cap is 1,500 mg per day. At the moment, both recommendations are a fantasy – the average American consumes 3,500 mg of sodium each day.
More than 75% of that salt comes from prepared foods, including restaurant offerings. So the health department sent interviewers out to 300 restaurants throughout New York City’s five boroughs and asked lunchtime patrons to show them their receipts. They got 6,580 receipts for meals that included at least one entrée.
How salty were those meals? The average lunch contained 1,750 mg of sodium, and 20% topped the 2,300 mg the government recommends for an entire day, the researchers report in Tuesday’s edition of Archives of Internal Medicine.
The saltiest meals were purchased at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Popeye’s – 55% of chicken chain lunches exceeded 2,300 mg of salt. The average chicken lunch had 66 more calories than the average burger-chain lunch (999 vs. 933) but contained 900 mg of additional salt, the researchers calculated.
Is it possible to eat at fast-food chains without going overboard on sodium? Apparently so. One in every 36 meals was limited to 600 mg of salt, an amount the FDA considers healthy. But the researchers didn’t say what was in those healthier meals.
In addition to KFC and Popeye’s, the researchers collected receipts from patrons of Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Au Bon Pain, Subway, Domino’s, Papa John’s Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
-- Karen Kaplan
Photo: Fried chicken restaurants like this one served up the saltiest meals in a survey by New York City health officials. Credit: Kathy Willens / Associated Press