Sodium has officially entered the danger zone.

The ingredient was the topic of a press conference hosted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nutrition watchdog group, today with the organization listing the restaurant industry’s worst sodium offenders and demanding federal intervention.

CSPI researched 17 chains, both full-service and quick-serve, and found that more than 80 percent of the 102 meals examined had more than an entire day’s worth of sodium.

For people with high blood pressure, African Americans, and baby boomers (which together represent 70 percent of the population), it’s recommended to consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. The remainder of consumers are recommended to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams.

Out of the top ten offenders for adults, KFC, Dairy Queen, and Arby’s ranked Nos. 8, 9, and 10 respectively. The other seven spots were held by full-service chains Chili’s, Olive Garden, Denny’s, and Red Lobster, which held the No. 1 spot with its Admiral’s Feast clocking in at 7,106 milligrams of salt. That’s almost three times the recommended daily consumption for healthy Americans and about five times the recommended value for high-risk diners.

KFC’s Half Chicken Meal clocked in at a smaller, but still-whopping 4,770 milligrams. Dairy Queen made the list with its Spicy Chicken Bowl (4,500 milligrams) along with Arby’s Large Beef ‘n Cheddar Sandwich (4,476 milligrams).

“Who knows how many Americans have been pushed prematurely into their graves thanks to sodium levels like those found in Olive Garden, Chili’s, and Red Lobster,” said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson during the event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Hypertension experts estimate that reducing sodium levels in restaurants and packaged foods by half could prevent at least 150,000 premature deaths per year in the U.S.

“The challenge to restaurants is to lower the sodium without taking away the taste,” Jacobson told QSR in a separate interview following the press conference.

“In some cases one way to do it very simply is to cut down on these humungous portions.”

Jacobson also recommends that chains shop around for suppliers who provide the same foods but with less sodium.

And the CSPI isn’t stopping with the restaurant industry. The group is also putting pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to make sodium reduction a federal regulation.

“An advantage to having the government involved is that the government can create a level playing field so that one company doesn’t feel like its foods won’t taste as good when it knows all companies will have to lower sodium,” Jacobson said.

In 2005 the CSPI sued the FDA and then petitioned the agency to regulate salt as a food addictive.

Tomorrow Jacobson is testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, showing that a 25 percent reduction in sodium consumption over 10 years could save the government $9 billion a year in direct medical costs.

“Getting the food and restaurant industry to use less salt would be one way the Obama Administration could help prevent chronic disease and make health coverage more affordable,” Jacobson said at the press conference.

–Blair Chancey

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