In its latest salvo in the battle against unhealthy eating, New York City is requiring larger restaurant chains to mark food items high in sodium with a warning salt shaker label.
No one knows whether diners will take the hint and avoid super salty menu options, or "salt bombs" as some are calling them. But experts hope that the message that these food choices can be harmful even among healthy people with normal blood pressure levels may get people thinking.
The amount of sodium in some healthy sounding items may come as a surprise to many.
For example, Panera Bread's Smokehouse Turkey Panini has 2,590 milligrams, or Applebee’s Grilled Shrimp ‘n Spinach Salad has 2,990 mg and each order of T.G.I. Friday’s Sesame Jack Chicken Strips has 2,700 mg.
That’s more than the daily recommended amount of sodium for most people, which is around 2,300 mg, says Bill Farquhar, a researcher in the department of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Delaware.
A study co-authored by Farquhar found that high salt consumption can silently damage blood vessels and major organs, including the kidneys, even when it doesn’t pump up blood pressure, according to the report published earlier this year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
“If you look at high salt conditions, blood vessels don’t dilate as well as they do under low sodium conditions,” Farquhar says. “And the ability to dilate is a marker of vascular health.”
Another recent study found that over the course of three years, high salt consumption significantly raised the risk of going from normal to high blood pressure.
Studies like these underscore the dangers of consuming too much salt even if your blood pressure doesn’t seem to be sensitive to sodium, says Dr. Howard Weintraub, clinical director of the center for the prevention of cardiovascular disease at the NYU Langone Medical Center.
“The blood vessels are the maestros of the cardiovascular system,” Weintraub says. “When their lining is behaving normally, it prevents cells and cholesterol from entering the blood vessel’s wall and clots from forming on its surface. When the lining starts to dysfunction, it goes from a mother of pearl type of surface to something resembling Velcro and that sets up an environment in which plaques can develop.”
Keeping your sodium levels low isn’t the only way to protect your cardiovascular system, but “it’s a very big part,” he says.
Weintraub hopes that the new labels will resonate with people who are concerned about their health and open to ways to improve it.
“There are 77 million people in this country — that’s one in three adults — who have high blood pressure,” he says. “And that is a contributor to so many bad things, most notably stroke. I tell patients, ‘If I have to do something to motivate you to do something to prevent stroke, then you don’t need me. You need a shrink.’ I can’t imagine a worse entity than stroke.”
That’s because the fallout from a stroke can be permanent disability, Weintraub explains.
The new labels will take the guesswork out of avoiding high sodium foods. “There may be some things that are surprisingly high in salt,” Weintraub says, adding that he hopes the labels will at least get people thinking about the dangers of high sodium.