Burger King has found a way to instantly reduce the levels of sodium in meals marketed to children without having to drastically reformulate its products: simply stop advertising high-sodium items to kids.
Burger King Canada Restaurants of Canada Inc. announced Thursday all of the company's kids' meals that are advertised to children under age 12 will now contain less than 600 milligrams of sodium.
That may come as welcome news to some parents who are looking for less salty options at fast food restaurants.
But they might be surprised to learn the company's new pledge doesn't mean kids' meals will actually contain significantly less salt. Instead, the company is just reducing the number of items it uses in promotional or advertising materials aimed at kids under age 12.
Food for Thought
There are only a handful of items that qualify under the new 600-milligrams-or-less advertising pledge, including macaroni and cheese, four-piece chicken tenders, or a hamburger, all paired with a fruit cup and fruit juice.
In reality, however, most children who eat at Burger King are more likely to get a hamburger that comes with French fries, or chicken tenders that come with onion rings - items for which fast food chains are famous, but which are also high in sodium. Those popular items are also why a growing chorus of health experts are calling for the government to clamp down on the amount of salt companies are allowed to add to food.
For instance, medium French fries at Burger King contain 790 milligrams of sodium - more than half the daily recommended intake for people age 9 to 50 of 1,500 milligrams. Medium onion rings contain 620 milligrams of sodium.
Burger King's new pledge means only those items that are under 600 milligrams of sodium will be advertised to children in posters or commercials. But in reality, the majority of items on the company's children's menu, posted on its web site, still exceed 600 milligrams.
So, while the company continues to sell high-sodium items to children, it is only calling attention to the few items that are under 600 milligrams.
For instance, the kid's cheeseburger contains 710 milligrams of sodium, while the kid's veggie burger has 860 milligrams. Pair that with small French fries, which are 500 milligrams a serving, and children ages 4 to 8 are consuming their daily recommended sodium intake in a single meal.
Cameron Loopstra, Burger King Canada's senior marketing manager, said even though high-sodium items will still be on the kid's menu, the company is making an effort to ensure only healthier options are used in promotions.
"A child can go in and they can order a large fry if they wanted to, but as our corporate responsibility we're trying to…[show them]we have these healthier choices available," Mr. Loopstra said.
Sodium reduction is one of the biggest nutritional issues facing the food industry. There is growing pressure to reduce the amount of salt they add to all kinds of products. About 80 per cent of the population's sodium intake comes from salt added to grocery store staples, such as bread, cereal and sauces, as well as restaurant food. A federally-appointed sodium working group is preparing to release a report detailing a national sodium strategy, which will include reduction targets for a range of food categories.
In advance of the report's release, a range of companies have been announcing efforts to reduce sodium, similar to Burger King. And, much like Burger King, the results of those reductions aren't always as significant as they first appear.
In June, Boston Pizza announced that it had reduced sodium in 75 per cent of its menu items. But even with the changes, many products still exceed the daily recommended intake for adults. In some cases, the items exceed the upper tolerable intake of sodium, beyond which the risk of health problems starts to increase.
In May, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd. said it was lowering sodium in some menu items. Only about a dozen menu items were affected, and the lowered sodium levels were still more than double the recommended daily intake for children and adults in many instances.
Kevin Willis, director of partnerships at the Canadian Stroke Network, said any steps toward sodium reduction by the food industry should be recognized and applauded. But he cautioned that many companies may be unwilling to undertake the kind of drastic reductions that are really needed to lower the dangerously high amounts of sodium Canadians consume in a day. For that, a comprehensive and binding national policy is needed, he said.
"This really is the very, very sharp tip of an extremely large iceberg," he said. "The only way which we will have an impact on the sodium in Canadians' diets is to reduce sodium in all products."
Mr. Loopstra said he didn't want to focus on the areas where Burger King still has work to do, saying "We think this is a very positive story."
"There's still items in there that are going to be higher than 600 milligrams, but we're excited that we're making progress," Mr. Loopstra said.
But Dr. Willis said Burger King, along with many other food companies, has a long way to go before their sodium levels can be considered healthy. Small, piecemeal efforts to cut salt levels in a handful of menu items simply isn't good enough, he said.
"This really is sort of just a drop in the ocean," Dr. Willis said.