Why New York City Is Salty About Sodium

The FDA's new guidelines suggest eating no more than 2,300 milligrams -- more than a Chipotle burrito's worth -- of salt each day.

Getty Images / Joe Raedle

New York City is officially the first city in America to be put on a low-salt diet.

Starting today, city restaurants with more than 15 locations nationwide — chains like McDonald’s, Subway, and Chipotle — are required, by law, to label menu items that contain more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium with a new warning symbol akin to a hazmat icon: A white salt shaker, enclosed within a black triangle.

Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, a trade group staunchly opposed to the rule, decried the new label as “a radioactive symbol for an essential nutrient” in an interview with the New York Times.

Meanwhile, Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett cooly says this in a press release that trumpets the news:

“The sodium warning rule makes it easy for New Yorkers to identify menu items that contain more than the daily recommended limit of sodium and to make healthier choices at chain restaurants.”

Starting today, New York City chain restaurants with 15 or more locations nationwide must post a sodium warning icon next to menu items.

A hazard-level degree of alarm is probably necessary: Eating too much salt is strongly linked with high blood pressure — known risk factors for deadly heart disease and stroke — and it’s frighteningly easy to surpass nutritional limits. Many people, the FDA has pointed out, don’t know they’re overloading on salt until they actually get sick. Recent research in the Journal of the American Medical Association has suggested that 90 percent of the population already eats too much of it.

A standard Chipotle chicken burrito maxes out at 2325 milligrams of salt. 

By the FDA’s count, we shouldn’t be eating more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, an amount equivalent to about a teaspoon of salt. The problem is, many of our favorite restaurants make it far too easy to surpass that limit with a single dish.

Take, for example, a standard chicken burrito from Chipotle, trimmed with white rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, and a dollop of fresh tomato salsa. Even without cheese, guacamole, or sour cream, the carb bomb, considered by many to exist on the healthy end of fast food, maxes out the FDA’s sodium cap at 2,325 milligrams.

The goods at Buffalo Wild Wings don’t fare any better: A snack-size order of the admittedly delicious bourbon honey mustard boneless wings caps out at 2390 milligrams of salt. Anyone who believes they’re doing their bodies any favors by ordering the Mediterranean Salad is living a lie: At 2,400 milligrams of sodium, you might as well be snacking on a side of regular fries (940 milligrams, still alarmingly high).

Even "healthy" options, like McDonald's chicken Caesar salad, hide away a ton of salt: This dish contains about 1,400 mg of sodium.

Tmay commit its fair share of nutritional sins, but the salt content of most of the individual items it lists falls, surprisingly, within FDA limits: The saltiest items on the current menu — Caesar salad with grilled chicken, and a sausage and hash brown morning McWrap — check in at 1,400 mg of sodium.

In New York, violators of the new law are subject to a $200 fine if they don’t label their menus appropriately, but they’re not actually being forced to make their food any less salty. Earlier this month, the FDA, under President Barack Obama’s administration, pressured the food industry to decrease salt levels by issuing a new set of guidelines about salt intake, but compliance isn’t required by law.

At the end of the day, it’s on eaters to regulate their intake for themselves to levels within a healthy range; the new rules are just there to strike fear into their hearts — before salt stops them from beating altogether.

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