Fast Food Chains, Kids, and the Truth About Salt Content

Let’s face it. If you’re trying to lose weight or cut down your calories, eating at the nearest McDonald’s or KFC should probably be the last thing on your mind.

Fast food restaurants have over recent times actually responded to the growing clamor of providing healthier, low-calorie options with fresher ingredients and none of the artificial stuff. They have each come up (quite creatively) with their own healthy items in their respective menus – from salads and grilled chicken to oatmeal and veggie burritos. But there’s one thing we’re not considering, and that’s salt. Yes, salt.

A new international study conducted by the World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) examined the salt content of the offerings of the most popular fast food chains, and let’s just say the results are something we should be paying attention to. In fact, WASH is calling for fast food restaurants and the rest of the players in the food industry to “universally reduce the salt content of their products… with children’s meals taking priority.”

The study examined the most popular kiddie meals offered to children by popular fast food chains like KFC, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Subway. The study was conducted across 37 countries around the globe, and here are the key insights and findings:

1. The salt levels are worryingly high for children.

Too much salt is not good for anyone, and especially not for children. WASH Chairman Prof. Graham MacGregor (Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at London’s Queen Mary University) highlights that “The more salt you eat as a child, the more likely you are to have serious health issues in later life.”

Too much salt puts people at risk for hypertension, heart failure, obesity, and even strokes. For a child that’s around 4-6 years old, the maximum salt intake should just be 1 gram of salt per serving. The findings of the study show that 8 out of 10 children’s meals contain more than that maximum amount. In fact, there was 1 meal that contained the same amount of salt as 10 packets of salted crisps.

2. The salt levels vary per country.

What’s interesting is that even if they come from the same fast food chain, the salt content you would get from a KFC kiddie meal in the UK would be different from what you’d get from the same meal in Costa Rica. Whether this is due to varying tastes and supply issues, fast food chains actually do adapt their menus to the local setting, and apparently this means salt content is affected as well.

For instance, when you feed your child Hamburger & Fries in Finland, you get 1.71 more grams per serving than if you were to eat the same meal in Spain. In fact, one of the study’s key findings is about KFC’s Popcorn Nuggets & Fries. “Over a year, a child in Costa Rica could be eating a WHOPPING 18 teaspoons MORE salt than a child eating the same meal in the UK.”

The UK also ranked lowest in salt content (0.78g/serving) for McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets & Fries, a far cry from Turkey (2.40g/serving). Turkey’s Chicken McNugget numbers are followed by Venezuela, South Africa, UAE, and Poland for the highest salt content and trailing behind the UK for lowest salt content are Finland, South Korea, and the United States.

3. Fast food chains CAN reduce the levels of salt without sacrificing the popularity of their meals.

What these numbers suggest, more than anything, is that if you take it from the example of the United Kingdom, it’s actually possible to reduce salt content if you really wanted to. WASH Public Health Nutritionist and International Programme Lead Clare Farrand underscores this by saying “All children, regardless of where they are from, should be able to enjoy the occasional meal out, as a treat, without putting their health at rick.”

By showing that salt content is actually less in other countries, WASH is saying that there’s actually no reason why the fast food chains in other countries can’t follow suit. UK’s food industry actually set out and achieved a successful salt reduction program, with salt intake in the UK falling by 15% from 2001-2011. If the entire food industry is accountable, then this is easier to achieve.

Fast food restaurants will continue to be there, enjoying billion dollar sales and a horde of loyal customers. Children will continue to ask for a treat at their favorite fast food restaurant, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.

WASH brings these findings to light not to criticize fast food chains but to call for immediate global action that will lower these “worryingly high” salt levels and make meals more enjoyable (and a lot healthier) for everyone, especially our children.

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