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Kick the salt, but keep the flavor

Some practical suggestions.

Boston Market’s late-August announcement that it would cut sodium levels an average of 20 percent throughout its menu—a decision symbolized by the chain removing all the salt shakers from its tables and replacing them with a placard—has put the spotlight on sodium in restaurant food once again.

Many industry observers predict that the next nutritional battleground will be sodium, which is believed to be a risk factor for high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Indeed, over the past year a number of chains, including Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr., Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Subway and Burger King, have taken sodium-reduction steps.

The area is controversial—not the least because the science itself is still inconclusive. A few days after Boston Market’s announcement, in fact, the editor of the American Journal of Hypertension told The New York Times that existing research “does not support an effort to reduce sodium in people who eat around three and a half grams of sodium a day, and that’s most Americans.”

That may not be the point, however, as many operators will attest.

“Quite a few of our patrons have thanked us for focusing on sodium reduction, because now they can eat here more often,” says Sara Bittorf, chief brand officer for the 476-unit Boston Market chain, which has been working to regain the position it owned 15 years ago as the embodiment of the “home meal replacement” category. “Others feel it should be up to them, but our feeling is that they can walk a few steps to the condiment station if they want to add salt.”

Boston Market’s move is part of a larger initiative to leverage its healthful image on both a relative and an absolute basis, adds Bittorf. “We wanted all of our food to be more healthful than the competition’s, and to some extent we already were because we focus on poultry and because the rotisserie cooking method drains away much of the remaining fat.”

On an absolute basis, she continues, the chain now offers a number of options for people with certain dietary requirements, including last year’s Meals Under 550 Calories initiative, with more than 100 different combinations of entrees and fresh vegetables. “It’s all part of a bigger picture of social responsibility.”

“A lot of the problems with obesity and healthcare in this country are being laid at the feet of fast food, and we need to work hard to counteract that perception,” says Charlie Cocotas, president and COO of U Food Grill, the “feel great, eat smart” fast-casual concept based in suburban Boston. “It’s our job [as an industry] to make sure that anything we serve to customers not only tastes great but has good nutritionals.”

U Food’s corporate executive chef Carlos Magalhaes approaches every recipe from the perspective of flavor first, but the fact is that there is no added salt in any of the 12-unit chain’s menu items. “Everything is delicious, but it’s also got to be good for you,” he explains, including a full selection of vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, extra-lean and reduced-sodium options.

“We are working with our suppliers to get lower sodium ingredients like sliced turkey and all-natural roast beef,” he adds, “and instead of salt, we’ll use fresh herbs and seasonings, citrus juice or even a little cheese to boost the flavor.” Naturally flavorful ingredients, like fresh tomatoes and basil in the popular Margherita Panini, also help ramp up the satisfaction.

In order to vet itself, U Food Grill sends all of its recipes to Healthy Dining Finder for validation or advice on how to tweak any particular menu item—at average costs of about $200 per item, according to Cocotas. “Getting that third party gives us credibility, but it also serves as an incentive for us to get it right.”