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Fast Foods Saltier in U.S. Than Overseas?

Study: Foods in U.S. and Canada Tend to Have More Salt

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 16, 2012 -- Your helping of McDonald's Chicken McNuggets in the U.S. comes with something extra you won't find in the same nuggets overseas: a lot more salt.

A new study finds that there is a wide range in the salt content of the same fast foods sold in different countries. Food in the U.S. and Canada generally contain more salt than food in the U.K. and France.

Researchers say the finding suggests that technical issues often cited by fast food franchises as barriers to reducing salt in their products may not be a major issue.

"These companies can reduce the salt in their foods because they are doing it," says University of Calgary professor of medicine and community health Norman Campbell, MD, who was a co-author of the study. "Decreasing the salt content of fast foods is certainly technically feasible and it would improve health and save billions annually in health care costs."

Salt in Fast Foods

The American Heart Association recommends eating less than 1,500 mg of sodium daily to help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Eating 1,500 mg of sodium is the equivalent of slightly more than half a teaspoon of table salt.

Yet the average daily intake for most Americans is more than twice this limit, according to the CDC.

Most of the sodium we eat -- about 80% the CDC says -- is not poured from a saltshaker, but is found in processed and restaurant foods.

Because of this, reducing salt in these foods is a crucial step to lowering individual and overall salt consumption, Campbell says.

In an effort to examine differences in salt among some of the most popular fast foods by product and region, Campbell and colleagues examined nutrition data provided in six separate countries by the multinational chains McDonald's, Burger King, Domino's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Subway.

The countries included the U.S., U.K., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and France.

Foods Saltier in U.S., Canada

Although the salt content of some foods, such as McDonald's Big Mac, did not vary much from country to country, much bigger regional variations were seen for other popular items.

According to nutritional information provided by the companies:

  • McDonald's Chicken McNuggets in the U.S. and Canada contain almost three times as much salt per serving as those in the United Kingdom (600 milligrams in a 3.5-ounce serving in the U.K., and 1,500 milligrams and 1,700 milligrams in the U.S. and Canada, respectively).
  • A Subway club sandwich in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand contained about twice as much sodium (2,700 milligrams to 2,900 milligrams per serving) as a club sandwich in France (1,300 milligrams per serving).
  • Salads sold by the fast food chains in France and New Zealand had less than half the salt per serving (300 milligrams) as salads in Canada (800 milligrams). Salad dressings are a major contributor to salt in salads.

Fast Food Industry Responds

The lower average salt content in the foods sold in the U.K. suggests that a national effort to reduce salt consumption in that country may be working, the researchers concluded.

In the U.S., the New York City health department is leading efforts to reduce the salt content of processed and restaurant foods by setting target levels.

The U.K. and New York City efforts are voluntary, meaning that they do not require food manufacturers and restaurants to meet their target levels.

In a statement to WebMD, a fast food industry spokesman acknowledged that there is a "growing consensus among health care professionals that some individuals need to reduce their [salt] intake."

National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR) executive director Rob Green noted that chain restaurants have voluntarily worked to redesign their offerings to salt, but he added that regulations to require these reductions would be counterproductive.

"These voluntary efforts should recognize that consumers have expectations about flavor and taste, and that changes in taste profiles must occur gradually in order to avoid consumer rejection," he said.

The study appears in the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

SOURCES: Dunford, E. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2012. Norman Campbell, MD, professor of medicine, community health sciences and physiology and pharmacology, University of Calgary. Rob Green, executive director, National Council of Chain Restaurants. News release, Canadian Stroke Association. CDC: "Americans Consume Too Much Sodium."

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