Though added sugar has been front-and-center in the news, let’s not forget about salt. Salt permeates our food daily, thanks to salt shakers prominently displayed on tables, and our love of fast food, processed foods, and our habit of eating most meals outside the home. If you don’t already know, heavy use of salt is associated with an increased risk of hypertension, called the silent killer because it can develop without obvious symptoms. A new national mandate is poised to help us cut our salt habit. But will it work?
What salt information is being provided?New federal guidelines will set limits for safe daily salt levels. In New York, a salt-shaker emblem will now be required on sandwich, salads and other menu items sold by chain restaurants, that offer 2300 milligrams or about a teaspoon of salt in the food item. New York City is the first to roll out this new nutritional guideline, as new national nutrition guidelines remain a work-in-progress.
The first goal is to highlight “high sodium” dishes so individuals can consider making a different food selection. Secondly, a salt icon can help people understand just how much sodium they are eating daily. It’s been estimated that many Americans are consuming as much as 3400 milligrams of sodium (or more) daily, despite recent guidelines from the American Heart Association which suggest consuming less than 2300 milligrams daily as a first-step goal. The next step would be to aim for 1500 milligrams of salt daily.
Who does the salt mandate affect?
Current eateries with at least 15 outlets nationwide will fall under the requirement of posting salt warnings. In New York City it probably amounts to about 10 percent of menu items at these chain food locations. The mandate in New York started this week, though fines to chain outlets who don’t implement the salt warnings on menus will likely begin March 1, 2016.
It’s important to grasp that if you order a cheddar and bacon burger from T.G.I. Fridays, you will consume about 4280 milligrams of salt (nearly two days’ worth) in ONE meal. Quiznos’ Large French Dip has 2240 milligrams and if you order it “with the works” it will pack 3610 milligrams of sodium. Six of Arby’s Mozzarella Sticks have 2530 milligrams of sodium, and some people buy this as a snack!!
The New York State Restaurant Association is not happy
Not surprisingly, restauranteurs and agencies that represent their interests complain that demonizing single ingredients is not of benefit to consumers, and specifically in New York, agencies feel it is “jumping the gun” to begin this posting process when the national nutrition guidelines on salt have not been finalized. New York City has been a pioneering leader in nutrition, banning trans fats from restaurant meals and trying unsuccessfully to ban large size containers in the sales of sweetened drinks.
Currently the National Restaurant Association is suing the Department of Health over the new sodium regulations. Also notable is the fact that preliminary data on the impact of posted calorie counts at chain restaurants has not had a sizable impact on changing people’s food choices.
Are we focusing on the right ingredient?
Consumers often value taste above their health concerns. If we are going to tackle some ingredients and put upper limits on their daily consumption, should we still be focused on salt or should we make sugar the star villain? According to a new study, it’s much harder to break a sugar habit, compared to a salt habit. Researchers suggest that weaning the public off of salt is a slam-dunk proposition compared to trying to wean them off of a sugar habit. These scientists believe that there may be different mechanisms at play when it comes to liking salt and sugar, and behaviorally it may require serious and persistent interventions to help people to limit the sugar in their daily lives.
On the other hand**, heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. So targeting salt may be an appropriate priority given its impact on heart health.**** Will this new sodium shake-up work?**
You may be wondering just how many entrees and snacks at these chain restaurants could possibly require this type of salt shaker warning. Many more items than you think. The problem is that the individuals concerned with nutrition are probably not even frequenting these chain establishments regularly, and when they do they are probably very selective. Will the salt shaker help other consumers who are at risk of developing heart disease or hypertension to re-consider their choices? Only time will tell.
One good habit if you eat fast food a lot
Commit to go online and do a menu investigation of the most common restaurant foods you buy. Have a sense of the salt, added sugar, fat and types of fat in these foods so you begin to predetermine better choices. Be forewarned and forearmed before you leave home. You can also become familiar with the foods that have notoriously higher levels of sodium like frozen and packaged foods, soups, baked goods, deli meats, certain condiments, chips, crackers and cheeses.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”