First Soda, Now Salt: New York City Slaps Warning Labels on Restaurant Menus
Tight pants, tight rings, tight shoes. Downing a salty meal tends to leave you with inconveniently swollen fingers and feet and a generally gross, bloated feeling. If only the health effects of eating too much sodium ended there. Thanks to sky-high rates of high blood pressure and heart disease, government officials in Gotham have declared war on salt-packed chain restaurant meals.
On Wednesday, the New York City Board of Health voted to require warning labels on high-sodium menu items at chains with more than 15 locations nationwide. The labels will take the form of saltshakers, and they will be the first warning of their kind in the U.S.
Under the new requirement, which will go into effect on Dec. 1, places such as Subway, Olive Garden, T.G.I. Friday’s, and, yes, that Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in the heart of Times Square will need to have a saltshaker symbol next to menu items with more than the FDA recommended daily intake of 2,300 mg of sodium, or about a teaspoon of salt.
“New York City was the first jurisdiction in the nation to adopt high sodium label warnings, and the Health Department expects this rule will further improve the overall health of New Yorkers,” the department said in a statement. “With a simple menu icon and statement to alert restaurant customers which items have exceedingly high sodium, New Yorkers will have easily accessible information that can affect their health.”
Changes would apply to 3,000 restaurants across NYC. Chains only. pic.twitter.com/rPHmvez80Y— ilana gold (@ilanagoldTV) September 9, 2015
Targeting chains makes sense because research has shown that when people eat out, they tend to consume more fat, sugar, and sodium than they would if they ate a home-cooked meal—and they may eat more salt than if they went to a fast-food joint. Indeed, three-fourths of Americans’ salt intake comes from processed and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The health implications of all that sodium are sobering. According to the CDC, about 70 million people—one in three Americans—have high blood pressure, and about 1,000 people die every day. The condition also boosts risk for heart disease and stroke, the leading health-related killers in the U.S.
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In a presentation about sodium warning labels to the NYC Board of Health in June, Sonia Angell, the deputy commissioner of the board’s division of prevention and primary care, noted that 80 percent of adult New Yorkers consume more than the recommended guidelines, and many don’t understand the negative effects of eating too much salt and its connection to illness. Angell also shared that, according to poll results, nearly 80 percent of Gotham residents said adding calorie counts to menus has been useful. To that end, state officials are also pursuing a soda warning label.
While the new saltshaker warning labels might help people avoid meals such as the Chicken Parmigiana at Olive Garden—one serving packs 3,000 mg of sodium—people don’t always chow down on one salt bomb–type dish. According to NYC’s guidelines, there will be no warning label next to Olive Garden’s Eggplant Parmigiana because it contains only 2,000 mg of sodium, just under the 2,300 mg that would earn the dish a warning saltshaker. But if you eat that item and also have a bowl of minestrone soup—840 mg of sodium—as an appetizer, you’ve already eaten more than the warning label recommends. (We’re assuming you’re skipping the breadsticks, which contain 460 mg of salt each.)
As you might expect, the Salt Institute is not amused by the board of health’s decision. In a statement, Lori Roman, president of the trade group, called sodium warning labels “another example of the government creating policy based on outdated, incorrect sodium guidelines.” Sure, there is some research out there that suggests Americans aren’t eating too much of the substance. The tried-and-true adage that moderation is the key comes to mind. Yet, with U.S. residents consuming an average of 3,400 mg of sodium a day, it sure seems we’re not too good at knowing our limits.