Americans have been squeezing too much salt in their diets for years, and many are now watching their intake. Fast-food restaurants, however, aren’t making it easy. A large comprehensive report “Stalling on Salt: Restaurant Meals Still Loaded with Sodium” from health policy advocacy group The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) created lists of the saltiest and least saltiest meals in America to reveal the sodium content in each chain.

"For far too long, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has relied on a voluntary, wait-and-see approach when it comes to reducing sodium in packaged and restaurant food," Michael Jacobson, the advocacy group's executive director, said in a statement. CSPI recorded the sodium levels of 136 meals from 17 of the top restaurant chains in America. They then analyzed the salt levels from 2009 to 2013 in order to see if the chains had made any changes. Overall, the chains had a total six percent sodium reduction, but many were still heavy handed with the salt shaker.  

The most recent American Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,000 milligrams (mg) a day, or to 1,500  if you’re 51 years or older. The average American goes above and beyond, and consumes a whopping 3,400mg of sodium per day, and 77 percent is derived from processed or prepared foods, such as pizza, cheese, and fast foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If chains like KFC, Jack in the Box and Red Lobster are actually raising sodium levels in some meals, FDA's current approach clearly isn't working," Jacobson said.

Burger King, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell have showed a reduction effort, according to CSPI researchers. Subway showed the most dramatic sodium reduction, with their Footlong Ham Sandwich with chips weighing in a total 2,730mg of sodium in 2009, to a reduction of the same meal but with 1,895mg of sodium in 2013.

Top 10 Saltiest Meals in America:

  1. Red Lobster: Admiral’s Feast with Caesar salad, creamy lobster topped mashed potato, cheddar bay biscuit & Minute Maid Light Lemonade (5,830mg of sodium, or 2.5 tsp of salt).
  2. Chili’s: Crispy Honey-Chipotle Chicken Crispers w/ Ranch (4,100), Steamed Broccoli Loaded Mashed Potatoes & Dr. Pepper (5,430mg of sodium, or 2.3 tsp of salt).
  3. Red Lobster: North Pacific King Crab Legs, Garden Salad w/ French Dressing Baked Potato with Butter & Sour Cream Cheddar Bay Biscuit & Coca-Cola (5,430mg of sodium, or 2.3 tsp of salt).
  4. Olive Garden: Tour of Italy Lasagna, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, Breakstick & Coca-Cola (4,965mg of sodium, or 2.1 tsp of salt).
  5. Red Lobster: Fried Oysters, Fried Crawfish, Garlic Shrimp Scampi, Caesar Salad, Cheddar Bay Biscuit & Sprite (4,530mg of sodium, or 1.9 tsp of salt).
  6. Olive Garden: Chicken Parmigiana, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing, Breadstick & Raspberry Lemonade (4,525mg of sodium, or 1.9 tsp of salt).
  7. Arby’s: Beef ‘n Cheddar Mid, Large Mozzarella Stick with Marinara Sauce & Dr. Pepper (4,511mg of sodium, or 1.9 tsp of salt).
  8. Olive Garden: Chicken & Shrimp Carbonara, Zuppa Toscana, Breadstick & Dr. Pepper (4,365mg of sodium, or 1.9 tsp of salt).
  9. Red Lobster: Chicken & Shrimp, Coconut Shrimp Bites, Fried Shrimp, Coleslaw, Fries, Cheddar Bay Biscuit & Minute Maid Light Lemonade (4,040mg of sodium, or 1.7 tsp of salt).
  10. Olive Garden: Spaghetti & Italian Sausage, Garden Fresh Salad with House Dressing & Sprite (3,870mg of sodium, or 1.7 tsp of salt).

Top 10 Least Salty Meals in America:

  1. Panera Bread: Full Classic Café Salad with Reduced Fat Balsamic Dressing, Apple & Orange Juice (150mg of sodium, or 0.1 tsp of salt).
  2. Subway: 6” Veggie Delite Sandwich, Apple Slices & Coke (295mg of sodium, or 0.1 tsp of salt).
  3. Burger King: Hamburger, Apple Slices & Minute Maid Cherry Icee (470mg of sodium, or 0.2 tsp of salt).
  4. Taco Bell: Crunchy Taco, Cinnamon Twists & Pink Lemonade Freeze (515mg of sodium, or 0.2 tsp of salt).
  5. McDonald’s: Hamburger, Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait & Dasani Water (550mg of sodium, or 0.2 tsp of salt).
  6. Wendy’s: Crispy Chicken Sandwich, Apple Slices & Dasani Water (680mg of sodium, or 0.3 tsp of salt).
  7. Jack in the Box: Hamburger, Apple Bites & Aquafina Spring Water (735mg of sodium, or 0.3 tsp of salt).
  8. Chick-fil-A: Southwest Chargrilled Salad without Tortilla Strips & Dressing, Large Fruit Cup & Orange Juice (825mg of sodium, or 0.4 tsp of salt).
  9. Sonic: Corn Dog, Medium French Fries & Small Minute Maid Lemonade (1,00mg of sodium, or 0.4 tsp of salt).
  10. Dairy Queen: Grilled Chicken Wrap, Side Salad with Fat Free French Dressing & Orange Juice (1,135mg of sodium, or 0.5 tsp of salt).

 

The top 10 saltiest and least saltiest kids' meals in America were also collected, and they were the same culprits: Red Lobster, Chili’s, and Jack in the Box (the top three), while Subway, KFC, and Sonic proved to be less salt-ridden.

Children should have 1,500mg of sodium daily, but the average teenager is having 3,486mg a day, while 2- to 5-year-olds are consuming 2,307mg each day. In just one chicken finger meal at Red Lobster, a child consumes 2,430mg of salt — way more than an entire day’s worth of recommended intake.

"Across our highly diverse industry, restaurants are actively engaged in efforts to provide consumers with lower sodium options," the National Restaurant Association said in a statement. "Efforts to lower sodium are impacted by consumer preference (and) limited technology ... Selectively choosing a sample of meals from various product categories does not take into account numerous factors and barriers that exist in sodium reduction, as well as the total dietary intake of a consumer over time."