How much salt is in your fast food?

Way too much, according to a study by Johnson and colleagues, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Personally, I love salty foods. While I have never been too fond of sweet things (chocolate, candy, etc.), just a few years ago I could have easily gone through a bag of chips or pretzels in one sitting. Just writing about that crunchy/salty goodness makes my mouth water.

However, since hypertension runs in my family, I have recently made a concerted effort to limit my sodium intake – largely by cutting out my intake or salty snacks. This process was made that much easier by living with a partner who is doing PhD research on the effects of salt intake on blood pressure, among other things. She got on my butt to limit my salt intake, while I got on hers to limit her intake of sugar – as diabetes runs in her family.

Regarding dietary sodium limits, it is suggested that adults stay under 1500 mg per day, and should never exceed the upper limit of 2300 mg/day.

Unfortunately, as a population, the large majority of North Americans consume considerably more than the upper limit of sodium every single day (~80% of men and women). Given the well established effect of sodium intake on health (check this great resource for more info on salt and health) this collective hyper-salinity of our diet is contributing to high rates of cardiovascular problems.

So where’s the excessive salt coming from?

That’s where the recent study comes in.

In this trial, meals bought from 300 randomly selected chain restaurant locations in New York City during the weekday lunch hour between March 27 to June 8, 2007 were assessed for salt content. A meal was defined as any purchase with at least 1 entrée.

The main findings?

  • 56% of meals purchased at fast food outlets contained more sodium than should be consumed during the entire day (>1500mg), with 20% of meals exceeding the uppermost limit for daily sodium intake (>2300mg)
  • Chicken fast food places tended to have the worst sodium levels per meal with 83.8% of meals exceeding the daily recommended level (1500mg)
  • Only 1 in 36 purchased meals met the Food and Drug Administration “healthy” sodium level for meals (600 mg)
  • The high sodium intake wasn’t necessarily driven by a high calorie intake, but rather by a high sodium per calorie ratio, with an average of 2136 mg sodium per 1000 calories purchased. Thus, even those eating lower calorie meals were likely to exceed their daily sodium limit within a single meal.

Take home message:

Stay the hell away from fast-food outlets!

And if you have absolutely no choice but to eat fast food (never the case), at the very least avoid fried chicken places such as KFC and Popeye’s.

Peter

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Johnson CM, Angell SY, Lederer A, Dumanovsky T, Huang C, Bassett MT, & Silver LD (2010). Sodium content of lunchtime fast food purchases at major US chains. Archives of internal medicine, 170 (8), 732-4 PMID: 20421561

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10 Responses to How much salt is in your fast food?

  1. Colin says:

    A medium potato ole (i.e., tator tots) from Taco John’s has 1710 mg of sodium. That makes McDonald’s fries a healthy food.

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  2. Lucía says:

    My one great question about fast food places refers to the lack of nutritional information on the packaging in which they dispense their food. I live in Argentina and I’m trying to figure out through AADYN (Argentina Association of Dieticians and Nutritionists Dietitians) and CODYNULSFE (College of Nutrition of Santa Fe province) if this is a legal issue or not. If its illegal not to inform the consumer ´bout nutritional facts, I wonder if it brings more problems to include “unreal” or distorted nutritional information than not put any about it. Is there any country in the world that includes this nutritional information?
    Thanks for the article, its excellent!

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  4. jan says:

    thanks for the article. do you have an alternative source for the salt resource, the one provided by you appears to host malware, according to google

    http://safebrowsing.clients.google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site=http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/&client=googlechrome&hl=en-US

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  5. Colin says:

    Lucía, McDonald’s here in the US puts nutrition information right on the wrapper/container. Calories, fat, sodium, and carbs, I think.

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  6. Hi Peter,

    Interesting stuff. I actually have a question about salt. I realize that Gary Taubes is a pretty controversial figure in nutritional circles… but what’s the view of his take on salt? In Good Calories, Bad Calories, he claims that a typical Westerner who reduced salt by 50% (a pretty tall order) would only reduce their blood pressure by something like 7 mmHg (I don’t have the book in front of me, so I’m going off memory). Is this inaccurate?

    He also claims that the body has a perfectly good homeostatic mechanism to get rid of excess salt — which seems to be what my wife is learning in med school too. I have trouble reconciling that with the unanimous chorus about the dangers of salt from public health bodies, heart and stroke foundations, and so on.

    So anyway, I was just interested in your take (and maybe your partner’s!). Is the science settled here? Is there any uncertainty? Do the warnings about salt apply to everybody?

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  7. Liz says:

    I used to be in the habit of getting Cosi’s lentil soup for lunch every Thursday … until I went to their website and discovered it contains upwards of 1700mg of sodium.

    I’m glad to see the study include Au Bon Pain and Subway – they might seem healthier than traditional fast-food chains like McDonald’s and KFC, but some items are terrible when you look at their nutritional information.

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  8. Frances says:

    This hits one of my biggest pet peeves: oversalted, nasty fast-food chicken. Basically, these chains soak the breasts in saline so they won’t be perceived as chewy and dry. (Funny, Asian restaurants pat down chicken breast to make it drier!) I ordered a salad at Wendy’s recently. Their old salads were tasty. The new salad combines overly sugary toppings (yuck) with WAY oversalted chicken. Seriously, this chicken was inedible. I ending up tossing most of it! Never again, Wendy’s!

    @Alex, I am no food scientist, but I recall an article on SBM in the past year referring to studies showing that about 1/3 of the US population is sensitive to the amount of salt in their diet. So 2/3 of people can probably oversalt (or shall we say, won’t see any BP reduction by cutting it), while 1/3 are, well, like me. VERY sensitive. Actually, I can use salt or lack thereof to manipulate my BP which is handy when I get hit with headaches.

    And yes, my body aggressively attempts to maintain homeostatis, just as yours does. I had a bad day once and tried to sip some water in the shower when I had a horrid headache. I almost immediately vomited it up. Something clicked and I asked my partner for some salt. I was then able to swallow the water and some medicine. I guess I am lucky because I can chug over a gallon of straight H2O in a day to cool off and I just sweat and pee it away. Some people have DIED drinking too much water.

    One more pet peeve is that I find that very salty snack foods tear up the lining in the roof of my mouth … brings new meaning to salting the wound. (Ow!) Hats off to anyone who can eat peanut butter M&M’s and chocolate-covered pretzels.

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