Let us admit it — we love to eat out. While eating out is good once in a while, frequent consumption of sodium-high restaurant food can increase our risk of developing high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack, stroke and associated complications.
Cognizant of the excessive levels of sodium in restaurant food, the federal government issued a directive to restaurants in 2007 to reduce sodium level in their food.
In 2010, a longitudinal study was undertaken by a group of researchers from the Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto to determine amount of sodium in restaurant food.
In their first report published in 2013, the researchers led by Dr. Scourboutakos, pointed out the alarming levels of sodium in restaurant food (3,400 mg versus the federal target of 2,300 mg), amidst prevailing claims of restaurant industry of adhering to the federal directive.
Responding to government’s repeated call to reduce salt, many Canadian chain restaurants subsequently announced that they have reduced sodium in their food significantly, indicating the same on their menu card and ingredient lists.
However, restaurant food has remained as tasty as before despite cutting back on salt. They do this by using salt substitutes/ enhancers such as yeast extracts, Potassium chloride, Calcium chloride and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).
In the third phase of their study that concluded in 2017, the researchers focused on whether salt substitutes/ enhancers are used by Canadian restaurants and fast foods, and whether their use was associated with changes in sodium levels in the food served during the period of study.
As part of their study, the researchers compared the changes in sodium levels per serving and the presence of salt substitutes/ enhancers in 222 foods from 12 of the leading fast-food restaurant chains.
According to their report published in the Canadian Medical Journal, 69 per cent of restaurant foods that provided ingredient lists contained a salt substitute/ enhancer. The most common substitutes/enhancers were yeast extracts (in 30 per cent of foods), Calcium Chloride (28 per cent), MSG –in 14 per cent and Potassium Chloride in 12 per cent.
The researchers found that more than 50 per cent of chicken dishes, cheeseburgers and sandwiches/wraps (often chicken and turkey) contained substitutes/ enhancers, and 100 per cent of tacos/burritos, stir-fry entrees and pizza slices contained substitutes/enhancers.
Are these salt substitutes/ enhancers safe for us and what is their long-term effect on our health? We do not have clear answers yet.
For instance, MSG, considered as a safe food additive when used in low amounts (2.5 gm) can trigger headaches in healthy populations, and more so in people with migraine. Restaurant foods could contain as much as 5 gm of MSG.
At present, MSG content of restaurant foods is unknown as levels have never been systematically investigated or reported and so we cannot say how MSG in restaurant food will affect us.
Given the present circumstances, what can we do to take care of our health? The easiest thing to say and the most difficult to do is to reduce the frequency of eating out.
When you eat at a restaurant, choose small portion size, split an entrée with a friend, or take home part of your meal. Ask for your meal to be prepared without salt and request that sauces/ salad dressings be served “on the side,” and use less of them. You may ask for healthy flavor enhancers such as herbs, lemon juice, chili peppers, paprika, and ginger/garlic to be served on the side or added to your food.
Alternatively go for low sodium options, if available. If a restaurant item or meal is posted as “low sodium” then the restaurant is obliged to provide nutrition information to support that claim and you are entitled to verify that.
Next time you are eating out, be aware of what goes in and take the necessary action.
Padmaja Genesh is a past resident of Red Deer, and a past board member of Red Deer Golden Circle. She is now a Learning Specialist at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org