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January 26, 2018

Should restaurants warn customers about food with high sodium?

Philly city councilwoman wants warnings for salty menu items

Sodium Politics
Sodium Warning Cristina M. Fletes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS via USA TODAY/SIPA

Should Philadelphia chain restaurants have warning labels for menu items with high sodium?

How carefully do you read a menu?

Do you check to see what exactly you're putting into your body? Do you know if the sandwich or salad you're ordering contains more of one nutrient than you're supposed to consume in a single day?

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown wants at least some eateries to let you know when it comes to sodium. She introduced legislation Thursday that would require chain restaurants to put warning labels on menus for items or combination meals containing more than the daily recommended intake from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

“We cannot assume that consumers know the nutritional content of food before they eat," Reynolds Brown said. "This legislative measure is another opportunity to promote smart and healthy food choices. In addition, it is an opportunity to educate our communities about what they are consuming.”

Under the legislation, chain restaurants would have to place the following label — visible in plain sight — next to applicable items on both printed and electronic menus:

Sodium content higher than daily recommended limit (2,300 mg). High sodium intake can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Reynolds Brown cited statistics showing alarmingly high rates of hypertension and heart disease in Philadelphia, particularly among African Americans. According to the FDA, consuming too much salt can lead to heart disease, stroke, heart failure and kidney disease. While 2,300 mg is the recommended daily intake for most, it's 1,500 mg for at-risk populations, such as those already suffering from hypertension, African Americans, and middle-aged and older adults.

Philadelphia wouldn't be the first city to require such warnings. New York City passed similar legislation two years ago. Sonia Angell, New York's deputy health commissioner, said at the time that most consumers don't necessarily understand the link between how much salt they eat and subsequent health consequences.

"The majority of salt in our diet doesn't come from the salt shaker — it's already in the food when we purchase it," Angell said, according to NPR. "And that makes restaurants a really important place to give people guidance about how they might be making decisions — if they choose to do so — that might protect their health and their heart."

Research backs up her assertion. In a study published in 2017 but conducted from 2013-14, researchers surveyed customers leaving five fast food locations — McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dunkin’ Donuts — asking them on how much sodium they thought they just ate. Of those who guessed, most were off — by a lot. Additionally, many had no way of even giving an estimate. Per TIME:

Adults ate about 1,300 mg of sodium in a single fast-food sitting, which is more than half of the upper recommended limit for the day. Yet the average guess was just 200 mg, says study author Alyssa Moran, a registered dietitian and doctoral student at the Harvard School of Public Health. They were off by about 650%.

That’s when they ventured a guess at all. “25% of the people we approached had absolutely no idea about the amount of sodium in their meal and couldn’t even provide an estimate,” Moran says.

Reynolds Brown's bill has Mayor Jim Kenney's blessing, but will likely face opposition from restaurant groups like the New York legislation did. Whether that opposition comes in the flavor of soda tax-esque rallies, we'll have to wait and see.