Salt Content Variable in Fast Food in Different Countries

Joe Barber Jr, PhD

April 16, 2012

April 16, 2012 — The salt content of fast food products varies greatly according to the type of product and between different companies and countries, according to the findings of a survey study.

Elizabeth Dunford, MPH, from the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues published their findings online April 16 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The authors note the importance of reducing the salt content in the diet. "Recent estimates suggest that the numbers of deaths averted by moderate reductions in population salt consumption would be at least as many as those achieved by plausible reductions in population smoking rates," they write.

"Coupled with rising rates of nutrition-related diseases worldwide, the food industry has an increasingly important role to play in public health," they add.

The authors conducted a survey to assess the salt content of 7 types of fast food products (savory breakfast items, burgers, chicken products, pizza, salads, sandwiches, and French fries) from 6 companies (Burger King, Domino's Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Subway) in 6 countries (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, and New Zealand) by obtaining data from the companies' Web sites. There was substantial variation in the salt content of different food products, ranging from 0.5 g salt/100 g for salads to 1.6 g salt/100 g for chicken products.

Among the countries, the United States had the highest level of salt in fast food products (1.5 ± 0.5 g salt/100 g; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.0 - 2.9) compared with 1.1 ± 0.6 g salt/100 g (95% CI, 0.0 - 2.2) in France. In addition, Pizza Hut had the highest level of salt among the different companies (1.5 ± 0.4 g salt/100 g; 95% CI, 0.3 - 3.5), whereas Subway had the lowest salt content (0.9 ± 0.4 g salt/100 g; 95% CI, 0.0 - 1.9).

In addition, there was even greater variation in the salt content of fast food products when salt levels were assessed on a per serving basis, reflecting the variation in product sizes among companies and countries (range of serving sizes, 22 - 660 g). In particular, the salt content of several fast food products, including some burger and chicken products, sandwiches, salads, and pizzas, exceeded 6 g/serving.

Remarkably, the amount of salt in a given product varied between countries in some cases. For example, the authors point out that McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets contain 0.6 g of salt per 100 g in the United Kingdom compared with 1.6 g of salt per 100 g in the United States.

The limitations of this study included the use of data provided on the companies' Web sites without confirmation of their accuracy.

The authors suggest that their findings reveal a need to reduce salt content in fast food products. "Decreasing salt in fast foods would appear to be technically feasible and is likely to produce important gains in population health — the mean salt levels of fast foods are high, and these foods are eaten often," the authors write. "Governments setting and enforcing salt targets for industry would provide a level playing field, and no company could gain a commercial advantage by using high levels of salt."

Dunford is the research officer of the Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health and has received funding from the World Health Organization to develop a tool for monitoring sodium content in foods. She has also received funding from Bupa Australia for the development of a mobile application for interpreting nutritional information and is supported by a Sydney Medical School Foundation Scholarship. Full disclosures are available on the journal's Web site.

Can Med Assoc J. Published online April 16, 2012.

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