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'Heart Attack Entrees With Side Orders of Stroke'

Overly Salty Restaurant Meals Present Long-Term Health Risks for All, and Immediate Danger for Some


Unsafe levels of sodium chloride, or salt, in chain restaurant meals
increase one's chance of developing hypertension, heart attacks,
strokes, and kidney disease according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nonprofit food safety and nutrition watchdog group today is exposing chain restaurant meals with dangerously high levels of sodium and is renewing its call on industry and government to lower sodium levels in foods.

Photo Credit: CSPI Ahoy,
matey! Red Lobster's Admiral's feast, with creamy lobster topped mashed
potato, Caesar salad with dressing, just one of the complimentary
Cheddar Bay Biscuits, and a lemonade: At 7,106 mg of sodium, it is one
of the saltiest restaurant meals in America.

with high blood pressure, African Americans, and people middle-aged and
older-70 percent of the population-should consume no more than 1,500
milligrams (mg) of sodium daily, according to the government's dietary
advice. Others should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
Yet it is almost impossible to get restaurant meals with reasonably
safe levels of sodium. A lifetime of eating much more than the
recommended amounts of sodium presents an increased risk of disease in
the long term. But for some, particularly the elderly, consuming 4,000
mg or more of sodium in a single meal can present an immediate risk of
heart failure or other serious problems.

researchers examined 17 chains and found that 85 out of 102 meals had
more than a day's worth of sodium, and some had more than four days'
worth, including these:

  • Red Lobster Admirals' Feast with Caesar Salad,
    Creamy Lobster Topped Mashed Potato, Cheddar Bay Biscuit, and a
    Lemonade: 7,106 mg
  • Chili's Buffalo Chicken Fajitas (with tortillas and condiments) and a Dr Pepper: 6,916 mg
  • Chili's Honey-Chipotle Ribs with Mashed Potatoes with Gravy, Seasonal Vegetables, and a Dr Pepper: 6,440 mg
  • Olive Garden Tour of Italy (lasagna) with a Breadstick, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, and a Coca-Cola: 6,176 mg
  • Olive Garden Chicken Parmigiana with a Breadstick, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, and Raspberry Leonade: 5,735 mg

knows how many Americans have been pushed prematurely into their graves
thanks to sodium levels like those found in Olive Garden, Chili's, and
Red Lobster?" asked CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "These
chains are sabotaging the food supply. They should cut back and give
consumers the freedom to decide for themselves how much salt they

"More than 70 percent of older Americans have
hypertension and are especially vulnerable," said Dr. Mel Daly, a
geriatrician who is Medical Director of the Subacute Unit at Greater
Baltimore Medical Center and an associate professor of medicine at
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Many elderly eat
frequently at these restaurants because of convenience and cost. But
the high sodium levels in many of these meals can lead to a spike in
blood pressure and even precipitate heart failure in some individuals."

Children eating at chain restaurants don't fare much
better than their parents or grandparents. According to the Institute
of Medicine, children aged 4-8 should consume no more than 1,200 mg of
sodium per day. These meals that have one or two days' worth of sodium:

  • Red Lobster Chicken Fingers, Biscuit, Fries, Raspberry Lemonade: 2,430 mg
  • Chili's Country Fried Chicken Crispers with Rice and 1% milk: 2,385 mg
  • KFC Popcorn Chicken with Macaroni and Cheese, Teddy Grahams, and 2% milk: 2,005 mg
  • Jack in the Box Chicken Strips Grilled, Buffalo Sauce, Fries, and 1 % milk: 1,980 mg
  • Olive Garden Chicken Fingers, Fries, and Raspberry Lemonade: 1,835 mg

already have enough to worry about with the increasing incidence of
obesity and diabetes among children. The restaurant industry should not
add to these problems by raising kids' blood pressure as well," said
Dr. Stephen Havas, an adjunct professor of preventive medicine at
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a former vice
president for science, quality, and public health of the American
Medical Association. He noted that a 2006 meta-analysis of randomized
controlled trials in children found that reducing children's salt
intake lowered their blood pressure, and that if lower blood pressure
were maintained into adulthood, it would reduce the incidence of
cardiovascular disease.

Since 1978, CSPI has been urging the Food and Drug Administration to press for lower salt levels in processed and restaurant foods. In 2005 the group sued the FDA
and then petitioned the agency to regulate salt as a food additive,
subject to reasonable limits in a given category of food. (Currently,
the FDA considers salt to be "generally recognized as safe" and does
not put any limits on its use.) Havas and other hypertension experts
have estimated that reducing sodium levels in restaurant and packaged
foods by half could prevent at least 150,000 premature deaths per year
in the United States.

CSPI hopes that new leadership in the Obama
administration will look to sodium reduction and other prevention
measures as means of making health care reform affordable. Since the
Bush administration did nothing to encourage sodium reduction, some
city public health departments, particularly New York City's, have
begun to press the food and restaurant industries to cut the sodium in
their products. Requiring chain restaurants to disclose sodium on menus
would help consumers regulate their salt intake and would likely nudge
the industry to provide more low-sodium choices, according to CSPI.

"Americans spend north of $15 billion to treat high blood
pressure, and many billions more on expensive heart procedures, yet the
government spends peanuts improving Americans' diets," said Jacobson.
"Getting the food and restaurant industry to use less salt would be one
way the Obama Administration could help prevent chronic disease and
make health coverage more affordable."

Tomorrow, before the Senate Finance Committee, Jacobson
will testify that reducing sodium consumption by just 25 percent over
the next 10 years could save the government $9 billion a year in direct
medical costs.

Since 1971, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been a strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science.