By Steve Coomes
For years the American Heart Association has claimed Americans eat too much sodium—an average 3,400 milligrams a day—and has implored citizens to unhand their salt shakers. But as a part of its multifaceted initiative to get Americans to eat more healthfully, it’s asking restaurants to join the effort by reducing sodium in their recipes.
Chains as large as Subway and Taco Bell have worked for years to sap some salt from their menus, and last year fast casual players such as Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain followed suit. In 2010, the National Salt Reduction Initiative, a public-private partnership established by New York City, was formed to urge independents to do the same.
In 2010, however, the AHA set a new goal of decreasing daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per person, a reduction of 35 percent from the old number. That mark, said Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, president of HealthyDiningFinder.com, will be challenging to achieve for a people so fond of salt. However, she believes restaurants can play their part in assisting customers to have better diets.
“I definitely think it’s good news that there now are a lot of chains working to reduce the sodium in their foods,” said Jones-Mueller, whose site guides consumers to restaurants with nutritious dining choices. “But the big challenge for restaurants is the fact that so many of the ingredients they’re using arrive with sodium already in them. That makes it very difficult for them to control.”
Subway corporate dietitian Lanette Kovachi, RD, knows this well. Where some view sodium control as salt shaken at the table, the chain’s R&D team has had to study its influence at a micro level to understand how its removal affects each product differently.
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“It’s been a lot of work to look at each of our breads, meats, cheeses and sauces and understand how taking sodium out changes much more than their flavor profiles,” she said. “Salt serves as a preservative in some products and also affects the textures of others. We’ve had a lot of times when we had to go back to the drawing board to get it right. It’s been a long process.”
Slow to grow
Attraction to the AHA’s movement is currently slow. When announced last April, only 12 food manufacturers and four restaurant chains pledged to reduce sodium in their products by 25 percent come 2015. Clearly, Jones-Mueller said, it’s never going to be easy, though all reductions are positive.
“It’s really been too easy for all of us to add salt to foods to improve their tastes, but the opposite of that is to recognize those places where you can reduce it without changing the taste,” she said. “We’re working with a lot of restaurants right now that are making a thorough exam of where the sodium actually comes from in their foods. That’s the first step.”
Finding flavorful alternatives is the next step, Kovachi said, adding that mere removal of sodium is rarely the solution.
“Of course, any discussion of flavorings we’ve added back is proprietary,” she said. “But in some cases it was easier; we could do just a straight reduction.”
Among the more difficult challenges, she said, are breads and meats: Bread requires salt to limit yeast development, and salt preserves and hardens cured meats such as salami and pepperoni. Extract too much salt from either and you have blown dough and rancid proteins.
Starbucks, which publicly committed to the National Salt Reduction Initiative’s 25 percent reduction goals last year, is targeting its breakfast sandwiches and beverages. According to an e-mail from a company spokesperson, the primary source of sodium in its beverages occurs naturally in its dairy products.
But while some restaurants are working hard to lower their sodium usage, the biggest question of all remains: Do customers really want that?
Jones-Mueller said yes, and based that on the growing number of searches on her website for low-sodium options. In response, she created a Sodium Savvy page on the site that allows visitors to search for restaurants with entrees containing 750 milligrams of sodium each and appetizers containing 250 milligrams. The feedback has been positive, she said.
“Most people are simply counseled by their doctors not to go out to eat because it’s too hard to find low-sodium options,” she said. “But we’re hearing from people who’ve chosen these items and they say they love them.”
Kovachi wasn’t quite as certain customers are seeking lower-sodium foods as much as they’re seeking healthful options overall.
“I think customers are watching lots of things they’re eating, but there’s clearly a lot more chatter about (sodium) in the media lately, so I’m sure that will bring attention to it,” she said. “I don’t think awareness of it overall is very high right now, but I expect it to grow in the future. That’s part of why we started this when we did.”
Jones-Mueller agreed that restaurants can only help consumers so much when it comes to their health, but she said the proactive stance many are taking should generate a lot of goodwill and draw consumers to their tables.
“It’s simply a demonstration that we’re moving forward toward the goal of offering low-sodium options,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing that this pushes them to look at ways to lower it in their foods. It certainly can’t hurt.”