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Q-and-A: Healthy Dining’s Anita Jones-Mueller on how restaurants can reduce sodium on menus

6 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice


Photo: (NEWSCRED/AaronAmat)

Sodium reduction is a hot topic in the foodservice industry as manufacturers and restaurateurs look for ways to cut sodium without sacrificing flavor or shelf-life. SmartBrief spoke with Anita Jones-Mueller, president and chief executive officer of Healthy Dining about the company’s latest research on sodium reduction and how restaurants can make menus healthier while keeping customers satisfied.

Healthy Dining recently released research on sodium reduction in restaurants. What did you find?

We found some very interesting results! Healthy Dining received funding from the National Institutes of Health through the National Cancer Institute to launch the first ever wide scale study looking at the sensory effects —   and customer satisfaction — of simply reducing amounts of high sodium ingredients.

Healthy Dining’s registered dietitians and research team worked with four well-known restaurant chains. We reduced the amounts of high-sodium ingredients, such as salt and seasonings, sauces, spreads and cheese, in several popular menu items and tested the flavor profiles of the menu items with more than 1,200 frequent restaurant customers. These customers did not know this was a nutrition-related study or that they may be tasting an item that was reduced in sodium.

The results revealed that in 82% of the items tested, restaurant customers rated the menu items that were reduced in sodium as being equally flavorful as or more flavorful than the original version. The flavor profiles were assessed using five sensory evaluation tools developed by Harry Lawless, PhD, a sensory evaluation expert and Professor Emeritus at Cornell University.

So that is good news for restaurants for a few reasons. First, it’s easy. This study focused on simply reducing the amounts of target ingredients — not reformulating or adding additional ingredients — for popular menu items like burgers, seafood, pasta, soups and salads. Second, it saves food costs because less is used. Third, in most cases, reducing amounts of the high sodium ingredients also results in reductions in calories, fat, saturated fat and/or sugar. So that will help restaurants to show more favorable nutrition profiles, especially with menu labeling coming soon.

The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to issue voluntary guidelines asking the food industry to lower sodium levels. What is the most challenging aspect of sodium reduction for restaurants?

I hope our research gives restaurants confidence — and inspiration — that they can reduce sodium and still achieve the flavor their guests want. Many restaurants are already making impressive strides in reducing sodium content. For instance, Boston Market has reduced sodium in their chicken, mashed potatoes and stuffing by about 20%, and in the gravy, it is reduced by 50%.

Probably the most challenging aspect of reducing sodium is making the commitment. Once you make the commitment, and if you believe that reducing sodium is important to your guests and our nation’s health, then it becomes a worthwhile journey. A challenging aspect is that some ingredients are naturally high in sodium, so it is hard to reduce. And other ingredients come from suppliers, so it is not as easy to reduce the sodium. Although, we are finding that suppliers are also making strides in reducing sodium.

Guest acceptance is a very important part of sodium reduction. Should restaurants let guests know about sodium reduction as it happens, or is it better to roll out lower-sodium items quietly and see how customers react?

I think that is a decision to be made by the individual brand. As guests become more nutrition-savvy and want transparency, it can be a real positive to communicate your efforts in reducing sodium. You can even get your guests involved in what level of reduction is acceptable. Some restaurant brands may choose the stealth method and not publicize the change.

Many people don’t know how much sodium they are consuming. What are some common “hiding places” for salt?

Pickles! That is my favorite example. Pickles seem so “innocent” because they have less than 10 calories with no fat or sugar. But one pickle has about 600 mg. of sodium — that’s more than 25% of the recommended amount for the whole day. So it’s important to think about whether you want to add a pickle garnish to a plate, because then the sodium for the meal is greatly increased.

Canned ingredients, processed meats, dressings, sauces, spreads (butter, margarine), bread, cheese … are all somewhat high in sodium. Almost everything has sodium, so in a full meal, it really adds up. But making small reductions in several ingredients can make a big difference. So a half-ounce less of processed meats, 10-25% less sauce or dressing, a quarter-ounce less cheese: These can all not only reduce sodium, but also calories and saturated fat.

What are some sodium-reduction tactics that restaurants can use to cut the most sodium while maintaining flavor?

Three of the best ways are:

  1. Using fresh ingredients instead of canned or processed. For example, fresh tomatoes have just 10 mg. of sodium per one-half cup compared to canned, which have 220 mg. or more. Four ounces of freshly carved turkey breast contains just 60 mg. of sodium versus 4 ounces of deli-style processed turkey, which contains about 1,250 mg. of sodium.
  2. Reduce the amounts of high-sodium ingredients such as salt, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, barbecue sauce, salad dressings and sauces. They can add from 200 to 800 mg of sodium per tablespoon. Soy sauce has about 1,000 mg. per tablespoon; even “lite” soy has 600 mg. Use unsalted butter to save 125 mg. per tablespoon. Even better, use healthier oils instead of butter. Use “garnishes” like pickles and olives sparingly.
  3. Add ingredients like garlic, leeks, onions, tomatoes, or other vegetables and while reducing added salt. Adding one teaspoon of garlic and decreasing salt by even one teaspoon will save over 2,000 mg. of sodium. And these ingredients add nutrients to the meal.

Two last things:

  1. You can download a free Sodium Toolkit here which provides lots of tips and guidance.
  2. We have funds to work with a few more restaurants on sodium (along with calorie and saturated fat) through our NIH research project. All costs are paid for through this research. If interested, contact Erica Bohm at [email protected].


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