Consider yourself warned: Public health coming to a fast food menu near you

New York City’s Board of Health last week unanimously agreed to require ‘salt-shaker’ warning symbols on menu items with more than an entire day’s recommended limit of 2300mg of sodium. That’s around one teaspoon of salt.

Restaurants with more than 15 outlets nationally will display warnings from 1 December 2015.

Warning: the sodium (salt) content of this item is higher than the total daily recommended limit (2300 mg). High sodium intake can increase blood pressure and risk of heart disease and stroke.

Industry groups and the National Restaurant Association have been as swift in their (predictable) opposition as public health advocates have been to welcome the move. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has even begun a Pinterest board of qualifying items – a salt shaming parade of sorts.

Surrounding public debate has renewed attention on the health impact of salt. Sugar may have received more publicity of late, but population salt reduction is a World Health Organization ‘best-buy’ for public health.

Cardiovascular disease is now the world’s biggest killer, and high blood pressure the leading risk factor for these deaths. Links between salt and high blood pressure are so well established that in 2011, countries agreed to pursue a 30% relative reduction in population salt intake, aiming towards an average of less than 5 grams a day (approx. 2000mg of sodium) by 2025. In Australia, a 30% reduction could save around 3400 lives each year – that’s three times the national road toll.

Many are aware of salt’s potential harms, but it appears most people are failing to personalise their own risk – and thereby failing to modify their behaviour accordingly.

New York’s measure is built on figures that just 1 in 10 Americans are abiding by current guidelines. Most Australians aren’t aware of the daily recommended amount, yet believe their own intake of salt to be ‘about right’ (spoiler: it’s not!) People may not realise around 75% of salt intake comes from processed and restaurant foods – making it hard for even motivated individuals to reduce consumption alone, particularly without user-friendly information available on labels or menus. Ironically the source of the problem is not the salt-shaker itself. Not the one you keep at home, anyway.

Introducing a warning icon is a step in the right direction. Graphic and simple, it aligns with growing evidence from a packaging context that interpretive labelling helps consumers make healthier choices. Such measures also have broader impact by driving reformulation. If you were the maker of Jersey Mike’s Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak – currently containing an astounding 7795mg of sodium – would you continue to invite adverse publicity via online ‘worst-of’ lists and in-store warning labels, or instead dial down salt, perhaps even phasing out the item from sale? Reformulated recipes rolled out by national chains may benefit millions of fast food customers far beyond New York City. Even before the potential ‘domino effect’ when emboldened health authorities elsewhere copy the measure, the little salt-shaker icon could have significant flow-on effects.

But what is an amount of salt worth warning us about? Burger industry representatives have been quick to proclaim most burgers in NYC wouldn’t be slapped with warnings under the current threshold. One whole teaspoon is a high bar if applied only to individual items. If a similar measure were applied in Australia, we may not see too many salt-shakers appear, though KFC’s Zinger Stacker burger comes dangerously close. Thankfully the law also applies to advertised meal combinations – in case you needed it, one more incentive not to ‘super-size me’.

Perhaps an entire day’s total is still an unreasonably high benchmark. If we allow food companies to market packaged foods as a ‘good source’ of positive nutrients like protein or fibre when containing just 20% of the daily recommended intake, and an ‘excellent’ source at 50% – why not apply a similar metric to a warning when the reverse is true?

Even if items don’t qualify for a salt-shaker, few would argue most products sold by these chains are ‘good for you’. Some point to limitations of focusing on single nutrient warnings, but such critiques miss the intervention’s place as only one component of a suite of complementary measures (including voluntary salt reformulation programs and trans-fat bans) which operate together to improve the food environment and enable consumers to make healthier choices.

In NYC – just as in New South Wales – total energy content is already displayed for all menu items. Results from NSW have been encouraging: the Food Authority found a 15% decrease in average kilojoules purchased. Despite a recent high-profile breach by McDonalds’ on its new digital menu boards, compliance has generally been high. Laws exist only in NSW, South Australia and the ACT, but many national chains have rolled out kilojoule information nationwide, delivering benefits to countless Australians.

As NSW considers extending menu labels to cover additional nutrients, New York’s salt-shaker provides global leadership. Perhaps better still, Australia has already developed a system combining information on a variety of risk factors (salt, sugar and saturated fat) with positive nutrients and total energy content into a single interpretive symbol. If ‘Health Star Ratings’ prove popular on front-of-pack of packaged foods in our supermarkets, why not extend them to fast food?

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