What’s in your Whopper? Salt in fast food varies greatly between countries

All French fries are not created equal. It turns out that sodium levels in the same fast food items can vary significantly between countries, according to a recent study — and can you guess which country’s Big Mac is especially salty?

An international group of collaborating researchers looked at the reported sodium content of menu items from six fast food chains in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

The chains included Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Subway.

For each restaurant, the team analyzed savoury breakfast items, burgers, chicken products, pizza, salads, sandwiches and French fries.

Overall, sodium levels in similar foods were inconsistent between countries, with fast food from Canada and the US containing the most salt, and items from the UK and France remaining relatively low on the list.

In the UK, McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets contained 0.6 g of salt per 100 g, for example, but in the US, they contained more than twice that amount at 1.6 g per 100g.

Here’s how the salt in McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets broke down by country:

Australia: 1.1 g
Canada: 1.5 g
France: 1.2 g
New Zealand: 1.1 g
United Kingdom: 0.6 g
United States: 1.6 g

“Many business decisions are made by the chains saying they are making the products based on the preference of the people, but those preferences could come from a test group of 20 people,” says study author Dr Norm Campbell, from the University of Calgary.

“In Canada, our fries have about twice as much salt as anywhere else. It should be a travel advisory. But overall, our consumption is two times less than that of the United States. People want to eat healthier. Nobody can tell me the people in Canada want more salt.”

And it’s not just your fries or McNuggets that are packing the excess sodium. Restaurant food in general — and any processed or packaged food — is high in salt. “If you go to an expensive restaurant, it is just as unhealthy, you just paid more money for it,” says Campbell. “You’re no better off. If you go to the grocery store and you buy packaged food it is just as bad. It’s a much larger issue.”

Food makers often cite technical difficulties as barriers to salt reduction, but given the range of sodium levels that already exist between countries, the researchers are skeptical. According to the team, the real problem lies in a lack of government moderation.

“These are federal government responsibilities. The fast food industries are responsible for their shareholders. They are not responsible for the health of the population,” says Campbell. “We elect politicians who have responsibility to oversee the changes in added salt and sugars in our foods that are killing us.”…..

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Riposte from the Salt Institute:

A recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the salt content of menu items at fast food chain restaurants varies from country to country with British hamburgers, for example, having a slightly lower salt content than American hamburgers. The nearly dozen scientists who conducted the research concluded that there should be no reason why food recipes should change from one country to another.

“I can only assume that the research budget must not have included travel to any local ethnic restaurants to enquire why their menu items and recipes are not all identical,” said Morton Satin, Vice President of Science and Research for the Salt Institute.

“It should be obvious that people in different countries prefer different kinds of foods and have different tastes, which even large chain restaurants have to accommodate to succeed,” he added.

The perplexing conclusion of the article (The variability of reported salt levels in fast foods across six countries: opportunities for salt reduction. CMAJ April 16, 2012) was surprising given the high level of peer reviewed clinical research normally reserved for the pages of the Journal.

“It is clear that the entire report was an agenda driven attack on what the authors consider high salt consumption. The authors specifically call for governments to mandate lower salt content in food, regardless of consumer preferences,” said Satin.

According to Satin, “The fact is that the majority of research conducted over the past few years and published in accredited peer-reviewed journals specifically cautions against lowering salt consumption for individuals. The detrimental health effects of doing so include increased morbidity and mortality from Type I and Type II diabetes, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease and heart failure.”

“The authors of the report also failed to note that in many countries, such as those in the Mediterranean region as well as Asia, salt consumption is higher than in the United States and so is life expectancy and general health,” added Satin.

About the Salt Institute: Based in Alexandria, VA, the Salt Institute is a trade association promoting responsible uses of salt, particularly for roadway safety, nutrition and water quality. Visit http://www.saltinstitute.org