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."
Education Versus Government Regulation
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."
Despite the debate about the best method for reducing salt intake on a broad scale, all the experts suggest gradual changes. Diekman advocates teaching people to gradually decrease their salt intake so their palates can adjust to the change. Campbell believes companies should also progressively decrease salt content over several years so people may not notice the changes.
"Everyone can gradually get used to lower salt levels, come to prefer lower salt levels, and wind up with a far greater opportunity of loving foods -- that love them back," Katz said.
The Salt Institute, a North American non-profit trade organization, responded to the study by saying that taste preferences in different countries dictate how foods are made, meaning that salt, sugar and other ingredients will naturally vary.
Lowering salt content also "holds great risks for the public," argued Morton Satin, the Salt Institute's vice president of science and research. "The preponderance of peer-reviewed medical studies recently published, have cautioned against population-wide salt reduction, including the latest one demonstrating that anyone who follows the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for sodium will end up with a highly unbalanced and nutritionally inadequate diet."
The National Restaurant Association said in a statement that restaurants are attempting to reduce sodium content in their foods.
"The restaurant industry is actively engaged in efforts to provide consumers with lower sodium options; however, there are challenges not identified by this study, including availability of acceptable reduced sodium items in the supply chain, consumer variability in taste preference across the U.S. and among the various countries, regulatory constraints, as well as availability of new and existing alternatives to sodium," said Joy Dubost, the group's director of nutrition.