This American City Successfully Reduced Sodium in Chinese Take-out

This American City Successfully Reduced Sodium in Chinese Take-out

The take-away from eating takeout with less sodium should be a no-brainer, but many people are unaware that one serving of General Tsao’s chicken can contain up to 2,325 mg of sodium – 25 mg more than the amount FDA recommends eating in an entire day. Perhaps this is why the city of Philadelphia decided to work with its Chinese food restaurants to reduce that amount by 10-15%.

Many fast food companies serve food laden with MSG and sodium. But in 2012, a group of Philadelphia health advocates noted that their city had over 400 Chinese takeout-only restaurants—more than all the city’s fast food restaurants combined.

With the goal of reducing the amount of sodium in the food, they formed the Philadelphia Healthy Chinese Take-out Initiative.

Sodium found in Chinese takeout is not the same as, say, Himalayan pink crystal salt or salt from sea beds that is untainted with modern processing. Most ‘salt’ is devoid of nutrients and contains many chemicals used in the mining and packaging process. The major health organizations recommend that we cut back on sodium:

  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): 2300 mg.
  • American Heart Association (AHA): 1500 mg.
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND): 1500 to 2300 mg.
  • American Diabetes Association (ADA): 1500 to 2300 mg.

The Philadelphia initiative sought out low-income neighborhoods where people most at risk for high blood pressure reside and Chinese take-out is commonly eaten. Jennifer Aquilante of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) explained:

“In Philly, we have such high rates of hypertension, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics.”

This is why Get Healthy Philly also promotes healthy foods, smoke-free environments, and methods to reduce smoking rates of young people.

Get Healthy Philly Helps Chefs Prepare Lower-Sodium Dishes

Staff from the PDPH Get Healthy Philly program joined with Temple University’s Center for Asian Health, the Asian Community Health Coalition, and the Greater Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association to work with 300 Chinese take-out restaurants.

They made an effort to look at table salt and also other sodium sources that might be hidden in canned sauces or prepared mixes.

The program asked restaurant owners whether they knew how much sodium contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and other health complications, and whether they were willing to change the food they sold the public.

Related: 10 Reasons to Ignore Mainstream ‘Conventional’ Wisdom on Salt

As most of the restaurant owners said yes, Get Healthy Philly brought in Professor Shirley Cheng of New York’s Culinary Institute of America to teach classes in preparing and marketing lower-sodium Chinese cooking.

Chefs from over 200 restaurants received free cooking training in late 2012 and early 2013. Professor Cheng showed chefs how to modify recipes for everything from popular shrimp dishes to lo mein. This often included replacing table salt with ginger, garlic, scallions, and lemon to add flavor. Of course, adding these ingredients and taking away the processed sodium offers additional health benefits.

After completing the classes, restaurant owners were rewarded with a participation certificate, a door decal, posters about sodium, a toolkit, and recipes for the most popular menu items.

Restaurants Moving to Lower Sodium and More Organics

If Philadelphia can transform a huge section of the restaurant industry in their city, what other transformations might be possible? Chipotle has already dedicated itself to serving organic, non-factory farmed food, and Aldi is refusing produce that is sprayed with neonicotinoids pesticides. Panera is taking artificial ingredients off their menu. Is it possible that every food retailer could be convinced to overhaul their food offerings? We could certainly stand to eat better, America, and it looks like slowly and surely, one city at a time, it is happening.