The nation's top 25 restaurant chains failed to reduce sodium levels in almost 3,000 menu items between 2012 and 2014, according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"As a whole, the nation's leading restaurants are failing miserably when it comes to their patrons' heart health," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the center. "And, unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has failed for decades to tell the food industry to lower sodium and by how much."
High sodium levels in the diet is a leading contributor to hypertension, stroke, heart disease, and other health problems – and 80 percent of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed and restaurant foods.
Between 2012 and 2014, the decline in sodium in 2,925 appetizers and sides, burgers, entrees, fried potatoes, pizza, sandwiches, and soups was less than 1 percent, from an average of 1,267 to 1,256 milligrams.
Some large increases in sodium were:
- Chili's Loaded Baked Potato Soup by 57 percent.
- IHOP’s Simple & Fit Simply Chicken Sandwich with Fresh Fruit by 80 percent.
- Taco Bell’s Cheesy Nachos by 48 percent.
In contrast, Olive Garden cut the sodium in its Caprese Flatbread by 63 percent, and Red Lobster cut the sodium in its French fries by 57 percent.
Outback Steakhouse showed the biggest overall decrease, a 9 percent average decline in 80 items. IHOP showed the biggest increase, with a 9 percent average increase in 129 items.
In restaurants where table service is provided, such as Applebee's, Chili's, IHOP, and Olive Garden, the average sodium level per menu item was equal to or more than 1,500 mg, the daily recommended limit for many Americans.
In 2010, the Institute of Medicine said the FDA should mandate limits for sodium in restaurant and processed foods, with a gradual reduction of sodium in food over time.
It’s estimated that reducing sodium consumption by half would prevent about 100,000 deaths from heart attacks and strokes in the United States each year.
However, the U.S. has chosen to use voluntary programs rather than limiting the amount of harmful ingredients, such as salt, in processed and restaurant food.
While the FDA hasn’t acted on the IOM recommendations, many other nations have launched sodium reduction initiatives in their countries, Jacobson said.
The United Kingdom’s program resulted in a 15 percent reduction per capita in sodium consumption between 2001 and 2011. Argentina, Australia, Belgium, and South Africa also waged effective sodium reduction campaigns, he said.
Children’s sodium consumption also is a critical public health concern, Jacobson said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released information in September showing that children ages 6 to 18 consume about 3,300 mg a day, which he said is well above recommended levels.
The center’s analysis of sodium in kids-menu items found an average sodium increase of 2 percent.
For the report, the center analyzed restaurant sodium data from MenuStat.org, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's online nutrient database.