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Restaurateurs strive to reduce sodium in menu items

Experts say that Americans are getting too much salt in their diets and need to cut back. 

Sysco Shape June 2014

Sodium has long been recognized as being a necessary component of our diet. The body uses sodium to control blood pressure, and maintain proper muscle contraction and nerve impulse conduction, among other things.

But while sodium is essential to our well-being, it also is widely recognized that  Americans consume far more of the mineral than is necessary. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that individuals take in between 1,500 milligrams and 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day, depending upon age and other factors. In fact, the average person's daily intake of sodium actually is estimated to be about 3,400 milligrams, or about 1 ½ teaspoons of table salt.

Sodium occurs naturally in most foods, the most common form being salt, which is made up of about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chlorine. At the same time, it is added to a wide variety of food products.

Over the past several decades, sodium has been blamed for a number of health conditions, most notably high blood pressure and hypertension, which have been linked to heart disease and stroke. Those health risks are further compounded in overweight or obese individuals, or persons with diabetes.

And while experts continue to debate the exact amount of sodium required in our daily diets, most tend to agree that we are nevertheless consuming far more than we need.

“The prevailing wisdom is that we need to get sodium consumption down,” says registered dietician Joan Salge Blake, nutrition professor at Boston University and media spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We shouldn't be arguing over the numbers, though. We're not even close to what the current recommended consumption should be. Everybody needs to make an effort to change things — manufacturers, restaurants, takeout sections in supermarkets, individuals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 65 percent of our sodium intake derives from food purchased at retail stores and 25 percent from restaurants.”

In fact, the food and restaurant industries have been working to reduce sodium in the food supply. Blake notes that many major food manufacturers have signed an initiative to lower salt in food products over the next decade.

In a recent letter to the Dietary Guidelines Committee, Joy Dubost, director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association wrote, “The restaurant industry appreciates the value and importance of sodium reduction for consumers. Our members are actively engaged in efforts to provide consumers with lower sodium options, and indeed many such choices are now available to consumers across our industry.”

Nevertheless, she adds, operators “have learned that sodium reduction is a complex matter that is not easily achieved.”

Dubost points out that there really is no replacement for salt in the food preparation process. “[Salt] has very unique functions,” she says, noting that sodium affects not only flavor but also color, texture, and food safety.

To help identify the chief restaurant sources of sodium in the adult diet, the NRA sponsored research published in the journal Nutrients. They include pizza from quick-service restaurants, 3.7 percent of total sodium intake; chicken and chicken mixed dishes, 2.6 percent; Mexican from quick-service operation, 1.9 percent; burgers from quick-service brands, 1.8 percent; and chicken and chicken mixed dishes from full-service restaurants, 1.5 percent.

While it is an admittedly complicated process to reduce the amount of sodium in restaurant food, there are actions operators can take. Dubost says restaurateurs should familiarize themselves with the nutritional makeup of their menu items as well as individual ingredients, and then work with suppliers to discover whether there are any reduced-sodium alternatives they can substitute. For instance, she recommends working with herbs and spices that don't contain salt. Salad dressings also are widely available in lower-sodium variations.

Blake recommends using fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs to help enhance flavors in menu preparations. “By using fresh produce, you won't be adding more sodium to the preparation,” she says. “If you use items that are in season, like fresh tomatoes or basil, you won't need anything else to enhance the flavor.”

She also points out that produce is high in fiber, which makes a menu item more filling and thereby cutting down on calories consumed. This tactic pays off if a restaurateur is looking to reduce large portion sizes while still maintaining a dish's flavor profile. “Using other flavors to get portion sizes down will also get sodium down,” Blake says. In addition, fruits and vegetables give volume to a plate, which can help avoid plating an item that the customer might think looks too small.

“People can be sensitive if they think they are getting less food,” she adds.

Different cooking techniques also can be used to add flavor to a preparation. “Roasting and grilling, for instance, both convey certain flavors,” Blake says.

In a blog posted on the NRA website, Betsy Craig, founder and chief executive of MenuTrinfo, suggests decreasing the amount of premade salsa or ketchup added to recipes or possibly serving the condiments on the side. She also recommends serving freshly made pico de gallo or salsa, which contain less sodium.

Fruit juices and zest from citrus fruit also add flavor to foods, she says.

But as manufacturers and restaurateurs must look for ways to reduce the sodium content in their foods, so must supermarkets, Blake says. “Supermarkets are becoming important sources for take-out food,” she says. “Many supermarkets have dedicated, large take-out sections, and they're really not much different than take-out restaurants.”

 But while nutritionists agree that individuals need to monitor their sodium intake, they also maintain that focusing on salt by itself is not the best route to take. “I think it's more beneficial to focus on total diet rather than just one item,” Dubost cautions. “We often get so focused on a single nutrient that we forget about the total diet.”

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