If your favorite fast foods taste different in certain other countries, it could be because they have less salt, according to a new study.
Researchers collected data on the salt content of thousands of fast-food items from six different restaurant chains in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States and found that the same foods varied widely in their salt content among countries.
Fast foods in the United States and Canada were found to be much saltier than in the other countries. Chicken products in the United States, for example, contained 1.8 grams of salt per 100-gram serving compared with 1.1 grams in the United Kingdom.
The reasons for the differences in salt content are unclear, but the authors say it's not because companies can't manufacture foods that are lower in sodium.
"Some fast foods are very low in salt, so it is technologically possible for all foods to have a low salt content," said Dr. Norm Campbell, a co-a-author and professor of medicine, community health sciences and physiology and pharmacology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Several of the other researchers work with the World Action on Salt and Health, an international group whose goal is to gradually reduce salt intake around the world.
The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that most adults consume no more than about a teaspoon of sodium daily, and studies have found that reducing sodium in the diet can lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease. Other research, however, has called those findings into question, suggesting that lowering salt intake can actually have the opposite effect on the risk for heart disease.
Despite the controversy surrounding salt, Campbell and his co-authors argued that global salt consumption is much too high, and that the best strategy for reducing the public's salt intake is for governments to intervene and regulate salt content. Other attempts to lower salt consumption have been unsuccessful.
"Federal governments have a mandate for the safety of our food supply," he said.
One program underway in the United States is the National Salt Reduction Initiative, coordinated by the New York City Department of Health, which has set targets and timelines for food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce sodium content in dozens of foods. So far, according to the program's website, nearly 30 different companies have agreed to participate.
But Campbell is skeptical of this kind of endeavor.
"They agree, they try to reduce salt, but they're in a highly competitive environment, and they are not responsible for the health of our populations," he said.
Campbell also has little confidence in public-education campaigns.
"Trying to educate the public doesn't work," he said. "We have a highly educated population that are aware of the issues. Most of them indicate on surveys that they are trying to eat healthy, and a lot of people perceive they are eating healthy."
It is misperceptions, however, that others say underline the need for more public education. Many people, for example, aren't aware that certain foods have a lot of salt.
"We need to do a better job educating consumers about the sources of sodium, the questions to ask about the foods they consume and educate them about how to change their diets," said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis.
She also said he public might be resistant to government involvement and, additionally, the legalities in different countries will make regulations difficult to establish.
"Educating people, however, is universal," Diekman said.
The public, Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said in an email, "needs to know that they don't just 'prefer' higher salt levels; they only prefer higher salt levels because they are used to them."