The average chain restaurant is cutting back on sodium -- very. slowly.
According to a new report from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the most prominent national chains slashed sodium by just six percent from 2009 to 2013, which amounts to about 1.5 percent per year.
Among the 136 meals from 17 popular chain restaurants reviewed by the CSPI, McDonald's, Burger King and Subway made the most drastic cuts. The Subway sandwich chain reduced sodium by nearly a third overall and had made reductions in all of the 10 meals the CSPI reviewed. For example, in 2009, a 12-inch ham sandwich with a bag of chips and a Diet Coke would set back a Subway diner 2,730 milligrams of sodium, but the same meal reviewed in 2013 contained 1,895 milligrams.
Even the reduced salt content of a single Subway sandwich is well over the 1,500 daily milligrams of sodium recommended by the CDC for at least half of the U.S. population -- including anyone who has high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, is over age 51 or is African American. The rest of the population should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium in a day.
In fact, 79 percent of the 81 adult meals CSPI surveyed contained more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium, and some restaurants even increased their use of the salty stuff. KFC and Jack in the Box were the worst offenders, according to the report, raising the average sodium content by 12.4 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively.
"Some companies are clearly making an effort, but we won’t see sustained progress by all companies unless they know that their competitors will be lowering sodium also," CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement.
Per the Affordable Care Act, national chain restaurants like the ones sampled here are now required to list calories on in-store menus and to provide full nutrition information at the request of customers and on company websites. So while concerned consumers can certainly keep an eye on their sodium counts, to do so requires a bit of extra sleuthing. As a shortcut to sussing out the worst offenders, the CSPI compiled 10 of the saltiest meals sampled -- a list to certainly stay away from. Below are 10 common combinations of entrees, sides and drinks at restaurants near you that contain surprisingly high sodium counts, according to the CSPI's full report.