Fast Food Companies Adjust their Salt Content for their Host Countries
Public health advocates have been stressing for years that a reduction in the consumption of fast food in developed countries is necessary. Many fast foods are processed and contain high amounts of sodium that are unhealthy if consumed in excess. A new study has found that public health advocates have been more successful in some developed countries than others. A team of researchers has found that major fast food companies have adjusted the salt content of their products to be in line with the host country's salt reduction initiatives.
In the North American markets, fast food companies often cite technical issues in their food processing as a barrier to reducing the salt content. According to the recent study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the lower salt content in other countries proves this is not the issue.
The team looked at six fast food companies in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The fast food companies observed include Burger King (Hungry Jack's in Australia), Domino's Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Subway.
They analyzed the sodium content of 2124 different food items from seven product categories. These include breakfast items, burgers, chicken products, pizza, salads, sandwiches, and French fries.
The salt levels in similar foods varied greatly between countries. For example, Canadian and American fast food companies use much higher sodium levels than in the UK and France. Chicken McNuggets in Canada have 2.5 times more sodium than in the UK (600 mg vs. 240 mg).
Excess salt in the diet is linked to high blood pressure and other negative health effects. Countries such as the UK, Ireland, Finland, and Japan have nationwide salt reduction initiatives, and estimates show that the reduced salt intake can lead to lower mortality.
Recent salt reduction efforts have been largely voluntary and not mandated. Another method is labeling certain types of high-sodium foods. However, food companies often argue that there are technical barriers to low-salt production that would involve the installation of new technology and methods into their process lines which, of course, cost money.
Studying other countries highlights the possibility that this change can be made. All it requires is public and government pressure to make it happen.
According to Dr. Norman Campbell of the University of Calgary, one of the study's co-authors, "Canadian companies indicate they have been working to reduce sodium but the high sodium in these foods indicates voluntary efforts aren't working. These high levels indicate failure of the current government approach that leaves salt reduction solely in the hands of industry. Salt reduction programs need to guide industry and oversee it with targets and timelines for foods, monitoring and evaluation, and stronger regulatory measures if the structured voluntary efforts are not effective."
The authors conclude that a widespread reformulation of products to lower levels of salt is required. They believe that it is change that should be introduced gradually over several years in order to minimize consumer backlash.
Link to published article: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2012/04/16/cmaj.111895
Burger and Fries image via Shutterstock