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Sodium levels at Canadian restaurants alarmingly high: Just one salad may be too much

Did you know you could exceed the daily recommended amount of salt by eating one salad? (Thinkstock)We love our salt here in Canada, or at least we’re forced to when we eat outside the home.

Because whether we like it or not, a study last year found that, among multinational food chains, Canadian versions of the same menu items figure among the world’s saltiest – meaning our McNuggets are even saltier than the McNuggets of our fellow salt-loving friends south of the border.

Now the evidence keeps piling up and, a new University of Toronto study published in this week’s Canadian Journal of Public Health reveals that a single item from Canadian chain restaurants -- anything from a burger or a stir-fry to a salad or wrap – contained an average of 1,455 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Also see: Think salad is the healthier option? Think again

To put that in perspective, health experts recommend that adults limit their daily sodium intake to anywhere between 1,500 milligrams and 2,300 milligrams. Already, Canadians are ingesting an average of 3,400 milligrams per day.

Researchers analyzed 4,044 different food items from 85 chain restaurants both at sit down and fast food establishments.

And perhaps more disturbingly, these excess sodium levels were also found in food items geared toward children.

"We're especially concerned because the sodium in restaurant foods is hidden," Dr. Doug Weir, president of the Ontario Medical Association, tells the Canadian Press.

"There is no easy way for patrons to choose lower-sodium options, because for the most part sodium content is not posted on the menu. Our patients, and especially those at risk for high blood pressure (40 per cent of population), need better information so that they can choose lower-sodium foods in restaurants. Menu labelling is the best way to do this."

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Sodium is one of two chemical components that make up table salt (the other is chloride). In the right dosage, sodium is necessary for human life; in excess, it can lead to all kinds of problems, like hypertension, high blood pressure and all sorts of illnesses.

But our drive-thrus aren’t salt mines across the board. The researchers found a wide sodium disparity between various items on offer.

"Some of the top quarter of the foods were above the upper level for a day, but yet the lower end were ... half your recommendation, so there was this big variety," Mary L'Abbe, senior author on the study, tells the news agency.

"You would normally think salad is a very healthy choice and so absolutely a large number of those salads were quite low in sodium ... but at the same time there were also salads that had up to 2,200 milligrams (of sodium) per serving," she adds.

Also see: Canned fish sold at Vancouver grocery stores years past expiry date

The good news is some politicians are calling for greater transparency by restaurants. There’s currently a private member’s bill hitting Parliament that would require chain restaurants to provide, among other nutritional factors, high-sodium warnings on their menus.

And aside from the obvious solution to cook meals at home, Health Canada recommends making smarter topping choices. Instead of ketchup, cheese, relish and mustard, try asking for more lettuce, onions and tomatoes.

In fact, more vegetables is pretty much the solution to anything. (Well, anything that can’t be solved by ice cream.) 

Watch the video below about salt guidelines for Canadian children. 

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