The city wants restaurants to identify high-sodium dishes. Will it do diners any good?

By Adam Campbell-Schmitt
Updated May 23, 2017
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If you've ever been diagnosed with high blood pressure, you've probably heard this from your doctor: cut back on salt. And if you've ever Googled how to do that, you've probably learned that there's a ton of sodium lurking in processed foods. New York City wants to shine a light on these hidden salt deposits. As of Tuesday, December 1, the city's chain restaurants (those with more than 15 locations nationwide) will have to put a salt shaker icon next to menu items that exceed your recommended daily dietary allowance for sodium.

You're supposed to eat fewer than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day, which is about a teaspoon of the fine-grained stuff, or 1 3/4 teaspoons of the flakier kosher salt that many of us use for cooking. But the average American consumes more than 3,400 milligrams daily. Recent surveys suggest that 90 percent of us are eating too much salt, and the new law aims to lower that number.

According the Associated Press, 10 percent of current chain restaurant menu items will get the shaker. Some of the culprits are foods we think of as reasonable choices, like Chipotle burritos. No amount of extra lettuce will help you feel better about that.

New York is big on this kind of public health legislation. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg led the charge to ban trans fats and require calorie counts in restaurants. (There was also his unsuccessful attempt to stop the sale of large soft drinks.) Do they work? Maybe. There's evidence that the trans fat ban did some good. But the research on calorie counts isn't encouraging, with a number of them suggesting that they don't change eating habits at all.

Restaurants found in violation of the new sodium labeling law will face a $200 fine beginning March 1. Organizations representing restaurants and salt producing companies plan to take legal action against the city. But any local legal battle may be a sideshow, since the FDA is also setting its sights on Big Salt.