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?