Why is There So Much Sodium in Restaurant Food?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
In our ongoing Food on the Run and Diet Friendly Dining series, one of the most common comments I find relates to the sodium content of the foods highlighted. Many readers challenge how a food containing 1000 mg of sodium can be listed as a healthier option. In responding to this common question let me simply say -- we try to highlight "healthier" choices. When many other menu items contain 1800 mg of sodium or more, 1000 mg is your healthier choice. That does not mean it is right for you or that it is a "healthy" choice just that it is one of your better options when also looking at other important nutrients such as total fat and calories.

Most of us need to pay closer attention to sodium intake than we do, myself included. However, for those with certain medical conditions, limiting sodium intake isn't just something that ought to happen but rather it is imperative that it does. If you are aiming to keep your daily sodium intake below 2300 mg, eating away from home at a restaurant right now will be extremely difficult. Why?

Salt has functioned for generations as a preservative and a flavor enhancer. Certain foods like cheeses, breads, and cured meats rely on it. Those selecting foods expect it and the rich flavor it provides. Unfortunately, over the years the sodium level in restaurant prepared meals has become far greater than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans outlines. However, just as we have seen change in the use of trans fats, we may also be seeing steps to lower sodium in the very near future.

At the beginning of this year, the Institute of Medicine began working with a panel of professionals to review strategies to reduce sodium intake to levels recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The project is sponsored by various government agencies and a public report is expected in February 2010. At the same time, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee is working on their recommendations as well since an update is required for those guidelines every five years. Their updated version is expected in the fall of 2010. As I reviewed the most recent subcommittee reports from the advisory committee meeting last spring, it seems there will be important future discussions surrounding sodium recommendations. The subcommittee reported that approximately 70% of the population fits in the defined groups that should be following the lower level of intake (1500 mg per day) and having two numbers (2300 mg) used for public education can be confusing.

So what could all this mean for the culinary industry and your favorite restaurant? Knowing that change is necessary, you will most likely see a variety of approaches begin such as regulatory and legislative actions, product development and recipe reformulation as well as additional information and educational campaigns. Most likely, any changes that take place will happen with very little fanfare. Industry leaders have learned that making gradual changes and recipe reformulations behind the scenes is a better way to go, versus making a big deal about how much healthier they are making things for you. You may see "lower sodium" options but as we have already seen in our own reviews, that doesn't mean they are necessarily low sodium by any stretch of the imagination. It will still be important to refer to great blog reviews from the dailySpark as well as reviewing specific restaurant nutrition information before dining out to make sure the lower sodium content meets your specific needs. A 30% reduction in sodium can be great for restaurant public relations, however when the food item was originally 2600 mg per serving, it still hides the truth about the sodium level and consumer health. As the saying goes, buyer beware.

One thing you will likely start to see more frequently is menu development around those food items that are naturally low in sodium such as produce. A green salad topped with fresh exotic fruits and an ounce of lower fat cheese is a naturally lower sodium cost effective alternative than trying to figure out how to lower the sodium content of a quarter pound cheeseburger and fries. You will likely also begin to see different cultural flavorings being brought into menu items so that they are still full of flavor but not from sodium.

The Bottom Line
Sodium intake is too high in the typical American diet. The recommended goal for sodium intake is 2300 mg per day for healthy adolescents and adults. Individuals with hypertension, those that are at risk of developing hypertension and some ethnic groups are encouraged to limit their intake to 1500 mg of sodium per day. Since over 80% of the sodium we consume comes during cooking and from processed foods, limiting intake starts by reducing processed foods including eating prepared foods away from home. The dailySpark will continue to help you make informed decisions when eating away from home but readers must keep in mind that healthier doesn't mean healthy or that it is right for you. Be aware and skeptical of promotions that highlight reduced or lower sodium entrées since this typically means they were extremely high to begin with and the reduction most likely is still higher than you would prefer. Modifications are likely in the restaurant industry and the potential exists for sodium guidelines for all Americans to be altered as well in the coming years. Continue to work on positive lifestyle changes for you and your family and you will be steps closer to reducing sodium and being a part of the voice for public change in the process.

How well do you maintain your sodium intake? What changes have you seen or do you expect to see as you eat away from home related to sodium?

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KHALIA2 7/15/2019
Great tips! Thanks! Report
I think it is because they want it to taste good. Report
I limit salt and sugar to the best of my ability. Thete is a case being made now that very low salt diets in seniors can contribute to falls. I imagine this is also linked to meds. I grew up in a household dominated by my dad , a health nut if you will - no factory food in our house. I still try my best to follow thst rule. Report
Informative blog having great information. Thanks for sharing. Report
I don't eat away from home too much except for Thursday, Then I order salads or something that doesn't contain too much sodium. At home when I am cooking, I have learned to add other seasonings instead of salt. Report
This is a great article. I don't use salt at home, but I know it is there when I eat out. Report
I don't use salt anymore and have discovered several spices that in the past were never used. Now I don't even miss the salt. Report
I really hope we see high-sodium foods go the way of the high-trans-fat foods of the past! Report
Since I travel with my husband for 4 weeks and then 1 week at home, 4 weeks away & 1 week @ home, etc I find the high sodium in restaurant foods to be a very difficult part of trying to "watch my sodium intake". 'Living' in hotels, and having to eat in restaurants nearly 24/7 made a HUGE change in our WL journey--after getting within 20 lbs of my goal weight, I have gained about 15-20 lbs in the past 3 years after we started this lifestyle change! And that is with splitting meals most of the time! I have stayed in places (like NY) that require the nutrition counts to be included on their menus and it is a real eye opener--both for the sodium count and the calorie count.

We are now trying to be more careful & trying to cut back even more, so we can get our WL going in the correct direction, but let me tell you, trying to do it while eating in restaurants so much is REALLY hard! I LOVE it when we occasionally get a hotel that has a kitchenette, or even just a microwave, so we can sometimes CHOOSE to make some meals in the hotel, & our 1 week at home has become a time to enjoy being able to cook for ourselves. I have never been one to cook at home much, but I now find that I look forward to the opportunity to do so!

So, with that said, YES, I would REALLY appreciate if restaurants would make healthy options available and include nutritional info. It would ALSO, make it MUCH easier to track my food! Report
We rarely eat out & when we do, I check the restaurant's website for nutritional information. Cooking at home, I never add salt except a dash at the table. Having gotten used to food that isn't salty, I can't eat even occasionally at many fast food places such as Burger King because of how much salt they add even when I have a coupon for a free burger. Report
I urge you to look up nutrition information for restaurants. Many have it on the internet. You will be shocked to see how much sodium is in most of the dishes you may be eating. I checked out Olive Garden, O'Charley's, Qdoba, and Bob Evans. Very few items on their menus are low in sodium. Most items have way too much. More than a daily recommended amount in just one dish! And the fat content is also high in many items. There are some things that are ok. You just have to look closely to find them. Report
I have stopped going out to eat because I can't stand the taste of salt they pour on their food. Leave the salt out and let me and everyone else put their own salt on their food, if they choose to. Report
For those of you who feel that there isn't much salt in your diet because you don't add it or for whatever reason.. I challenge you to add sodium to your nutrition tracker. I was diagnosed with a kidney disease, IGA Nephropathy when I was 18 yrs old and was told to watch my sodium intake. Due to that I have never added extra salt to my foods and pretty much cook without it. However when I added sodium to my nutrition tracker out of curiosity, I was SHOCKED at how much sodium I actually take in every day. I almost always go over the recommended amount of sodium per day and that is without eating any items that are extremely high in sodium (like popcorn is a given that it will be high in sodium). Report
I don'y eat those Ramen noodles unless I only use only half of the seasoning packet. It is way too salty for my liking. I understand that there is so much sodium in restaurant food because it acts as a preservative,but if it fresh,than why do we need it? My boyfriend adds salt to the bowl of veggies that we have as a side dish. I told him to salt his own portion,because not everyone has the same taste for salt as others do. Report
I haven't used salt in over 25 years, there's no need for it, food has enough natural salt in it already, and besides fresh ground pepper tastes better :)

If I eat something salty now, it burns my tongue and throat.

I have to stay away from things like Marie Collander Microwave stuff, because that brand has some of the highest sodium content I've ever seen.

3,380 g of sodium in one Marie Collander meal, NOT Healthy at all

@BeatleTot, technically salt IS poison, it's made up of Sodium, A soft metal that burns when expose to the air, and Chlorine Gas, which is a deadly gas, but when combined together make Salt.


For every gram of sodium chloride that your body cannot get rid of, your body uses twenty-three times the amount of cell water to neutralize the salt. Eating common table salt causes excess fluid in your body tissue, which can contribute to:

* Unsightly cellulite
* Rheumatism, arthritis and gout
* Kidney and gall bladder stones
being from a mother who always cooked with salt and then marrying into a family with history of heart problems so used very little or no salt and did not like the salt substitutes they were bitter And yes you can ask for salt free french fries at any resturant and especially the fast food ones then they have to cook up a special batch and you get good hot fries Eating without salt is very easy have learned to use other spices Report
I find this funny, my boyfriend is a chef (and a smoker) and when he cooks at home he over salts to the point I can't even eat it. Maybe it's a trick they teach to keep patrons ordering drinks. Has anyone gotten results by requesting no or low salt in a dish when ordering? I noticed that when I order food in Massachusetts the dishes have almost no salt, it could be that I eat out with a much older crowd in MA and salt free is the bases on which they choose the restaurant. Report
I cook at home with very little salt and use spices to enhance the flavor. Restaurants could start doing the same thing. Report
I gotton to a point where I believe eating out is not healthy, it is dangerous. Therefore the only way I can control what goes into my food is to cook it myself. I do not eat out unless I have to. At home I do not use table salt. I've cut down the amount of salt I use when boiling water to half of what I use to use. I am trying to keep my sodium intake to no more than 1500 recommended by a nutritionist and my personal trainer. Report
I cook without salt, I use other spices to liven up the flavors. I do track my sodium, and I found it was difficult to stay under 2300mg, but I am working on it! Report
I track my sodium on spark just to make sure, but I am usually within my range or slightly over, because I really have never been one to like all the added sodium. I actually buy low sodium when possible. I use other seasonings in place of salt a lot of times, and both my husband and I prefer that! Report
I have never liked salt ever since a child, so I don't have a salt shaker on the table and when I cook I add only a small amount. Purchased food is another problem, but I avoid high salt anything. Report
Knowing that I am in the minority for no to low sodium use, I have been on a crusade for over 20+ years. Writing to well known manufacturers of soups, vegetables, entres, etc. be it canned or frozen I have pleaded with them to lower the levels of sodium per serving. In the earlier years I barely got a response....however in recent times as early as last week a well known soup manufacturers Customer Relations person wrote me a very curt email. In essence it basically said "sorry you feel that way, but the majority of our customers do not".....and there you have it folks! Give the PEOPLE what they want..as long as it SELLS.

While I am in favor of a major over haul of our health plan coverage.....I sometimes stop and reflect on how many diseases we visit upon ourselves because we are too spoiled and lazy to do otherwise. Report
I watch my intake of sodium - and sugar, fat, simple carbs . . . I agree with the label statements mentioned. I find if the front of a label says "lower in ____ than . . ." then that additive is usually a lot higher than it should be for healthy eating. Report
I truly struggle with my soduim intake. I do track it but generally I am over the 2300 recommended intake. Need to really work on this! Report
Remember, most of the public aren't like those of us at Spark. They have to make changes more slowly and NOT advertise it. ConAgra made significant reductions in sodium content of many manufactured foods - pizza being the notable exception - in several years recently. This info came through various grapevines, but was not advertised on labels. If they'd put this info on labels, Most people Would Not Buy the Food!

A great approach will be hearty Thank You's! followed by This was a Great Start, Do it Again! Praise them for the slightest change with urging to do more of the same. When I learned of ConAgra's sodium reductions on a Meniere's forum, this is exactly what I did - in writing at their web site. They even sent me coupons!

Btw, I don't use sodium on my Spark food tracker. Almost anytime the food isn't a processed manufactured food or completely raw, the sodium count is incorrect relative to the actual sodium content in the food I ate. It's hard to find listings in the database for unsalted dishes - individual foods are easier. After seeing repeated numbers that were incorrectly bloated, I deleted it from my tracker. For example, anytime I eat at my Mom's, the numbers will be far off. She lives in independent senior living and when chefs are cooking for seniors, they don't use 'usual' amounts of sodium. I don't cook with salt at home, either. Report
As I recent graduate of a Culinary Arts program, it has been my experience that whenever a dish needed additional seasoning the salt was the first thing that was grabbed. Seasoning of foods through additional spices was almost unheard of. It was a struggle for me because I prefer to taste the food not salt. (That and the addition of buttered flavored oil - I always tried to use the least amount as possible and the instructors would always come up behind me and add three times the amount - I always told them they just ruined my dish) Report
the people cooking aren't the ones eating it

don't resteraunts like to preserve more to save waste Report
Good reminders.
As a salt sensitive high blood pressure gal- I get horrific headaches and feel really bad when I eat too much salt, so I'm super aware of it. My BP shoots up 20 points or more if I do too much. Makes it hard when going to a 'potluck' kind of thing. Report
why is it that restaurant foods that have high sodium dont taste like salt? there is hardly no menu items from any restaurant that has low sodium. Report
I don't understand the big deal, really. I know that many people have to watch their salt, but I take exception to the comment from E Just E that a salty restaurant recipe shouldn't be included in the healthier recipe section. Then he writes, "and if a restaurant only offers salty foods, it is fair, advisable and honest to say 'stay out of there.'"

Really? REALLY? It's not poison. It's a natural seasoning. And it's delicious. And our ancestors used it to keep food from spoiling. And it used to be used as currency ("salary" is derived from "salt.") What a great and honorable history it has!

And I know that people with blood pressure problems and other problems might have to avoid it, but even then, it's not poison. Some people can't eat gluten, but it's not poison, either. Some can't eat dairy, but it's not poison, either. I just don't understand the salt haters. Report
I am very diligent in reading nutrition labes for just the sodium alone because I am very sodium sensitive. I strive to keep my sodium intake below 800 mg per day. Even though I tend to shun any government involvement in our lives, I give them kudos for trying to tweak the sodium intake we live with daily.

You will never know exactly how much sodium you are consuming until you read labels. If you consume too much you will retain water and that is nothing but a ticket no weightloss. The solution is to restrict the sodium in your diet and drink alot of water. Its as simple as that. Report
I do not add salt when cooking or at the table. It is very difficult to eat out when so much sodium is present in the food before it gets to your table. Report
As a person who began watching sodium intake at age 29 (34 years ago) when my hypertension was diagnosed (at 5'2" and 112 lbs, I wore a size 5, and was physically very active), I can say that it's extremely difficult to eat out. I haven't added salt to anything in years, and read labels constantly to know sodium content before I buy. I also must keep potassium intake low, and so can't have salt substitutes that are potassium-based, either. I think there should be regulations that prevent lacing our food with such high levels of salt - or anything that's bad for us, for that matter. The food industries are killing us! Report
I really would like to see restaurants take the initiative and offer lower sodium foods. What I DON'T want to see is legistation forcing restaurants to change. I have no doubt that chefs willl be able to create very imaginative and delicious foods that are lower in sodium than what is currently offered. Report
Starting Sunday I am going to track my Sodium intake on sparks nutrition tracker. Even as a nurse I was never sure what the daily requirements were for sodium. Regarding the eating out part I can make no comment on that as (1) I don't eat out (2) I never order take-out with delivery. (3) I've always cooked my own foods in large quantity, break it down in portions and freeze it, this way I know all the ingredients in the food and I can control those ingredients and their amounts. Report
I do not cook with salt, or add salt at the table. I try to eat mainly unprocessed foods to help limit the sodium content of our meals. Report
I haven't added salt to my food, since 1974, and I find a lot of things, just too salty now. It is so funny, because I am crazy for potato chips. I try not to eat them, as I know how bad they are. I don't add salt, when I cook either. Report
We've got to the stage where eating anything out is too salty. It tastes so awful we just can't tolerate it any longer. Thank goodness I like to cook, so we can replicate most things at home. A lot healthier than the restaurant alternative! Report
I have always been a salt fiend. When I was a kid I would pour some into the palm of my hand and lick it off! But I have cut my sodium by using only Celtic Grey sea salt. It has 40% less sodium than table salt. It's a bit more expensive but a little goes a very long way. Some folks think all sea salts are lower in sodium but I have actually seen some that have more sodium than table salt! Report
I just started tracking my sodium and it was SHOCKING. Even at home. I am definitely working on that RIGHT NOW. As far as eating out - I do it so rarely, I honestly don't care "that much." Yes, I still do. But eating out once every......one or two months is less impact on me than daily living. (Except for Pizza, oh, I get that once a month definitely. LOVE pizza) Report
One of the ways we can bring about change is to ask the waiter EVERY time we place an order, "Please tell the chef not to add any salt. I will take care of that myself". or, please ask the chef how much salt has been added to ______ before you order, and if it is high, order something else. Or some similar strategy. It may not change what you get that time, but if enough of us send that message to the kitchen, the chef will start thinking about reducing the salt added. Report
I try very hard no to salt my food. I try to use pepper as much as I can to give it flavor it may be missing. I use a lot of garlic salt. Is that worse or just as bad? I hope not. My whole family loves it and uses it more than regular salt. Report
I'm with you, Reed... I try very hard to NOT salt foods! I NEVER sprinkle salt on my food (at the table) and use very little in cooking. I try to choose low or no salt canned/processed foods, but that is not always an option. When I get too much salt, by body sure does TELL me! Restaurants/food processors could cut WAY back on their food and it could still be very tasty! Report
I have cut back drastically on eating out because I know when I eat out I go over my sodium. I rarely put sodium in food I cook and I don't sprinkle it on my food EVER! I still have difficulty staying under 2300. As soon as I found out I could add it to my food tracker I did.

It's good to hear there may be help from the restaurants to use less salt. It is in their best interests. SP should do a poll asking if people have cut back on restaurants due to their high use of sodium.

We should start boycotting restaurants that use too much sodium or don't make their nutrition information public. Report
I track my sodium and know that most days I go over, despite my best attempts not to.The fact is, sodium tastes good.
I wish that restaurants would lower their sodium content, even gradually over time would be better than not at all, but what happens when customers start complaining that the food "doesn't taste as good as it used to"? Because likely, it won't. Will customers stop going to these restaurants instead of embracing their attempt to be more healthy? Report
Keeping track of what my sodium level is extremely important to me. I have kidney problems and salt spells trouble me for. Instead of cooking with it, I use spices to bring out the flavors in my meals. Report
How well do you maintain your sodium intake? I started tracking my sodium with Spark a few months ago. I was disappointed to find that I almost always go over my limit of 2300 - usually around 3700-4000 mg daily! I have low blood pressure, but I tend to retain water a lot, which shows up in swollen ankles and hands. I never cook or bake with salt, but I do love salty foods like chips and pretzels. Though I have tried to eliminate them from my diet, the best I've been able to do is limit them. I definitely need to work on this!

What changes have you seen or do you expect to see as you eat away from home related to sodium? I really wish that Massachusetts would pass the same law as New York City, requiring that all restaurant chains post nutritional facts for all of their meals. I think it would go a long way towards helping me make better selections when dining out. Right now, I probably order take out or dine out one or maybe 2 meals a week. I don't order fried anything, but I'm sure that there is high sodium content in a lot of the food that I eat out. It's disconcerting not to know! The best thing to do is for me not to eat out as often. Report
I dont cook with salt. I use sea salt after if needed on what I eat. I also cook in a Resturant, they DONT use salt in there sauces, only spices. All home cooking in a healthy way.It's an Iltalian Resturant that is family owned. Report
How well do I maintain my sodium intake?
Very well. With Spark's Nutrition Tracker I track sodium as well as a few other nutrients. The Nutrition Tracker is an extremely beneficial tool.
What changes have I seen or expect to see as you eat away from home related to sodium?
A few places feature menus that indicate healthier choices, but having Spark review restaurants with Food on the Run has been the biggest help in my decision-making when it comes to eating away from home. Mostly I don't bother because the choices restaurants have to offer seem DEADLY compared to my own cooking. Mostly I have taken to eating fresh fruit when I'm on the run, or something rolled up in a pita or tortilla (and bread products are very high in sodium I've noticed so have limits where bread is concerned) and I happen to live out in the country, miles and miles away from restaurants, so it's simply not convenient to go to one. Lucky me! Report