When I posted a recent column on The 20 Worst Foods in America, a list of the most calorie-laden fare being pushed by chain restaurants, I think I shocked a lot of people. "Holy cow!" wrote one Yahoo commenter. "If only I knew. I can't believe restaurants can stuff that many calories into one meal!"
Well, they can. But calories — whether from fat, sugar, or a combination of bad-for-you foodstuffs — aren’t the only danger lurking in today’s restaurant menus. There’s another issue you need to be aware of: Salt.
Salty food may seem like the least of your worries, especially if you're among the 40 percent of people who mindlessly shake salt on every dish. An extra dash here, a few sprinkles there — what's the big deal?
A lot, when you consider some of the shocking stats and shady food industry practices we've uncovered. A mere teaspoon of salt contains all 2,300 milligrams (mg) of your recommended daily allotment, yet daily salt consumption is on the rise in the United States — from 2,300 mg in the 1970s to more than 3,300 mg today.
And according to Monell Chemical Senses Center researchers, 77 percent of that sodium intake comes from processed-food purveyors and restaurants. Their motivation: Pile on the salt so we don't miss natural flavors and fresh ingredients.
Why is that a problem? With ever-expanding portion sizes, supersalty foods are displacing fresh fruits and vegetables, which are rich in potassium. And a 1:2 ratio of dietary salt to potassium is critical for your health. Studies show that a high-sodium, low-potassium diet is linked to a host of maladies, including high blood pressure, stroke, osteoporosis, and exercise-induced asthma.
To protect your heart, your bones, your muscles, and your tastebuds, we scoured takeout menus and supermarket shelves to expose the 20 saltiest foods in America. No need to take the information with a grain of salt. These dishes provide plenty.
Saltiest Kids Food
Cosi Kid’s Pepperoni Pizza
2,731 mg sodium
43 g fat
112 g carbohydrates
We’ve seen some fuzzy math in the past few months concerning this Cosi catastrophe, with the sodium count changing literally overnight from 6,405 mg sodium to the current number. We’ve tried to sort this out with the Cosi people, but have gotten little hope clarifying the sudden shift. One thing is clear, though: Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, a pizza with 2,731 milligrams of sodium and 911 calories is the last thing you should be serving your kid.
Saltiest "Healthy" Food
Chili's Guiltless Grill Chicken Platter
2,780 mg sodium
85 g carbohydrates
Beware the bait and switch. Many restaurants and packaged-food producers advertise their dishes as being low in calories and fat, only to jack up the sugar and salt content. Case in point: This platter actually has more sodium than Chili's 1,890-calorie Country Fried Steak with sides, toast, and gravy. Stick with the Guiltless Salmon, the best choice on Chili's sometimes-healthy special menu.
Saltiest Frozen Dinner
Swanson Hungry-Man XXL Roasted Carved Turkey
4,480 mg sodium
70 g fat
Yes, the nutrition data on the back suggests that the package contains two servings, but the label proudly proclaims the 1 1/2 pounds inside, and besides, how many people are going to share their frozen dinner?
Quiznos Turkey Bacon Guacamole Large Sub with Cheese and Reduced-Fat Ranch Dressing
4,670 mg sodium
49 g fat
116 g carbohydrates
First, skip the large sandwich. At Quiznos, few come in under 1,000 calories and 3,000 mg sodium. Next, abandon mozzarella for Swiss, which has a tenth of the sodium. Finally, choose one of the low-calorie subs at Quiznos — the Tuscan Turkey, or better yet, the Honey Bourbon Chicken.
Romano's Macaroni Grill Chicken Florentine
5,460 mg sodium
53 g fat
Salads are often the biggest blood-pressure boosters on the menu, since the innocent leaves play perfect host to a flurry of briny toppings and dangerous dressings. Here, salt-laden olives, capers, and Parmesan collide with Macaroni Grill's massive portions and its cooks' affinity for the saltshaker. The only reasonable insalata on the menu is the Mozzarella alla Caprese: It has 450 calories and 760 mg sodium.
Papa John's Cheesesticks with Buffalo Sauce
6,700 mg sodium
113 g fat
296 g carbohydrates
If you were to split this appetizer with two friends, you'd still be close to downing your daily sodium allowance before you even reach for the pizza. Each stick packs the same amount of sodium as a small slice of cheese pizza, and that's without dipping. Your best bet? Cheese pizza. Thin crust.
The Saltiest Dish in America
Romano's Macaroni Grill Chicken Portobello
7,300 mg sodium
66 g fat
With three items on our top 20 list, plus a slew of dishonorable mentions, Macaroni Grill earns its title as America's saltiest chain restaurant. But what makes this the saltiest dish in America? One word: demi-glace, a fancy French name for the viscous salt slick that blankets this disastrous dish. You would have to eat 32 cups of potassium-rich broccoli to compensate for this sodium avalanche.
For a complete list of the 20 Saltiest Foods in America, and details on how to disarm the restaurant industry's weapons of mass construction, check out these rankings and nutrition secrets.
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