What do poutine, nachos, and pad sew noodles have in common? How about salads, soups, and stir-fries? The common link is sodium, and lots of it, according to a new U of T study.
The study looked at 85 chain and fast-food restaurants across Canada and found that average menu items contained unhealthy levels of sodium. Most items in sit-down restaurants contained the amount of sodium recommended for an entire day. Fast-food restaurants did only slightly better, averaging about two-thirds the daily value per item.
“I think the most surprising result was the wide range of sodium levels we saw,” says Mary Scourboutakos, the lead author of the study and a PhD student in U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences. “If you take sandwiches, for example, at a sit-down restaurant, we saw sandwiches with 200 mg of sodium. There were other sandwiches with 600 mg of sodium.”
Health Canada recommends most adults consume 1,500 mg of sodium per day. Despite this, 85 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women consume over 2,300 mg per day. These high levels of sodium consumption put individuals at risk of developing high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke.
Even children’s items were found to be loaded with salt. Children between ages four and eight should consume up to 1,200 mg of sodium per day. But most restaurant items contained two-thirds of the total daily limit, and some meals such as pizza, chicken, and pasta far exceeded it.
Nearly half of Canadians eat at least one meal a day from a restaurant or cafeteria, and the impact on Canadians’ salt consumption is significant. Most people don’t ever actually see the salt. “We think about the amount of salt we’re adding at the table, but really, that’s negligible. The sodium we’re eating is already in the food … when it’s served to us or when we buy it,” says Scourboutakos.
While the numbers indicate that so called health-food restaurants are the exception, some of these restaurants have still responded to experts’ call to lower their sodium use.
“Most of our raw food especially have almost no salt in it,” says Dwayne Van Sluytman, a sous chef at Live Organic Food Bar in Toronto. “We try to minimize [salt in] a lot of our salad dressings as much as we can. And everything is just to taste after that.”
Like all chefs, Van Sluytman uses salt, but only sparingly. He says he also prefers sea salt, as its stronger flavour allows him to use less.
“They’re all flavour enhancers. So once you find healthier options — sea salt, Himalayan salt, even tamari — you find you’re using less and get the same result,” says Sluytman.
Scourboutakos says the government needs to set sodium reduction targets for restaurants as it does with packaged grocery foods.
“Overall, we definitely need a national sodium reduction strategy to address the issue of [high] sodium in the Canadian food supply,” says Scourboutakos.
But in the meantime, Scourboutakos says consumers can take advantage of the same resource that made her study possible: almost all chain restaurants post their nutritional information online.
“If you’re eating out frequently, you need to make yourself aware. Go to the websites, figure out how much sodium is in those foods, and then choose appropriately.”