Research teams in six countries looked at multinational fast-food chains and specifically looked at the salt content of their offerings.
Excess salt in the diet, along with lack of exercise and obesity, is a leading cause of hypertension, said Robin Borders, a registered dietitian for Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics.
Reducing the intake of salt modestly could save as many lives as smoking-cessation efforts, the authors write in the study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
The study found that the salt in fast-food offerings from the same company in different countries could be vastly different.
McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, for instance, had 2½ times more salt in the U.S. than those served in the United Kingdom, the study said.
There was also wide variation between companies with similar products. The salt level in sandwiches from Pizza Hut tended to be 70 percent higher than those from Subway, according to the study.
The authors said there is an effort in the United Kingdom between the government and companies to lower the amount of salt offered in foods, which could be having an impact already. That could rebut arguments from the food industry that retooling to use less salt would be a substantial burden, the authors said.
“Decreasing salt in fast foods would appear to be technically feasible and is likely to produce important gains in population health – the mean salt levels of fast foods are high and these foods are eaten often,” the study concluded.
Researchers used data from 2010, and McDonald’s has reduced the salt content in many of its chicken products, including McNuggets, by 10 percent since then, McDonald’s USA spokeswoman Danya Proud said.
The company’s goal is to reduce sodium content by 2015 by an average of 15 percent across the menu, she said.
“We are also listening to our customers to ensure we continue to evolve to meet their taste and nutrition expectations,” Proud said.
High salt content is often overlooked when people eat out, Borders said.
The problem comes from eating processed and prepared foods where salt is often used as a preservative, Borders said.
Even with salads, dressing can add a big dose of sodium, and extras such as croutons can add up, she said.