April 17 Fast food may often be high in salt and
the exact levels seem to vary by country, according to an
international study that looked at fast food menu items in six
Findings published in the Canadian Medical Association
Journal showed that, in general, certain foods had less salt in
the UK than in the United States or Canada, such as McDonald's
chicken nuggets and some chain-restaurant pizzas.
"The salt content of fast foods varies substantially, not
only by type of food, but by company and country in which the
food is produced," wrote Elizabeth Dunford of the George
Institute for Global Health in Australia, who led the study.
"Although the reasons for this variation are not clear, the
marked differences in salt content of very similar products
suggest that technical reasons are not a primary explanation."
One serving of McDonald's Chicken McNuggets, for example,
came with 1.5 grams of salt (600 milligrams of sodium) in the
United States and 1.7 grams of salt (680 mg of sodium) in
Canada. That compared with just 0.6 grams of salt (240 mg of
sodium) in the UK.
The chicken nuggets served in Australia, France and New
Zealand had salt levels that fell somewhere in between.
Salt was pervasive regardless of location, though. Overall,
fast-food burgers served up an average of 1.3 grams of salt (520
mg of sodium) across all countries with only small national
It's not clear why salt content in some fast food items
varied by country, said Norman Campbell of the University of
Calgary in Canada, who worked on the study.
One factor, though, could be UK government efforts, the
researchers wrote. The UK has set voluntary salt-reduction
"targets" for the packaged food industry.
The targets do not yet extend to fast food, but some fast
food companies were part of the discussions that helped set the
goals, noted Dunford.
"In the right regulatory environment, it is likely that fast
food companies could substantially reduce the salt in their
products, translating to large gains for population health," she
and her colleagues wrote.
The food industry has argued in the past that salt reduction
is difficult because it requires new processes and technologies.
A McDonald's spokesperson pointed out that the study used
data from 2010.
"We have already reduced sodium by 10 percent in the
majority of our national chicken menu offerings in the U.S. -
most recently Chicken McNuggets," the spokesperson said.
"Sodium reductions will continue across the menu and by
2015, we will reduce sodium an average of 15 percent across our
national menu of food choices."
Campbell said the study was not an attack on the fast food
industry, noting that country-to-country variations are seen in
packaged food and heavy salt use is not unique to fast food.
In the United states, it's estimated that almost 80 percent
of people's sodium intake comes not from their salt shakers, but
from the salt that food makers add to their products.
Campbell argued that it's up to governments to rein in
sodium levels in the food supply and that a structured,
voluntary approach, where the government works with industry to
set lower targets, is probably the most feasible.
"We've been badgering people about salt for years, and it's
not working," he said.
"They are out there in a sea of fast food and processed
foods. We really need to tackle this at a societal level."