12/16/2014 12:04 EST | Updated 02/15/2015 05:59 EST

High-Sodium Restaurant Meals Persist, Researchers Find

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Sodium levels in most foods served at chain restaurants in Canada have stayed the same over three years, say nutrition researchers who call for government-enforced action to reduce sodium.

Reducing sodium levels is a public health priority, researchers say, since consuming too much can push up blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

In Tuesday’s issue of the CMAJ Open, researchers report the number of menu items with “unacceptably high amounts of sodium” did not change from 2010 to 2013.

Sodium in Canadian restaurant foods 'alarmingly high'

Mary L’Abbé and Mary Scourboutakos of the nutritional sciences department at the University of Toronto concluded:

- Sodium levels decreased in 30.1 per cent of foods.

- Increased in 16.3 per cent.

- Remained unchanged in 53.6 per cent.

"More pressure needs to be put on restaurants to lower sodium because clearly right now, not enough progress is being made and labelling legislation might be one way to achieve that," Scourboutakos said.

In the U.S., evidence suggests when restaurants were forced to put sodium information on their menus, they lowered salt levels, she added.

The study compared sodium levels in more than 2,100 foods based on nutrition data from the websites of 61 restaurants with 20 or more locations across Canada.

Sodium levels at restaurants such as Subway, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Taco Time decreased by at least 20 per cent in more than 70 per cent of foods surveyed. But large reductions in certain foods masked increases in others to offset the improvements, the researchers said.

The number of foods containing a "healthy" amount of sodium did not increase.

Currently, 85 per cent of men and up to 83 per cent of women exceed the daily sodium level likely to pose a health risk, the researchers said, pointing to a 2007 survey by Health Canada.

Restaurants Canada represents restaurants including A&W, Dairy Queen, Harvey’s, McDonald’s, Milestones, Pizza, Quiznos, Swiss Chalet and Tim Hortons.

In August, it said 17 restaurant chains have committed to implement its voluntary program to highlight calorie and sodium content nationally by the end of the year.


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