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How Can There Possibly Be This Much Salt in My Fast Food Salad?

And very much connected: Why does it just make me want to eat another fast food salad?

Last month, I ranked alleged healthy items from popular fast-food chains, and despite already being aware that even the healthiest fast food dishes are less than healthy, I was stunned, astonished and (mostly) confused by the monumental amounts of salt that can be found in the salads, of all places.

Now, before I tell you how much sodium is in these salads (hint: a lot), know that the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, and in an ideal world, they say that most adults should have no more than 1,500 milligrams. That’s because too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, as well as increased risk for heart disease and kidney disease. More recent studies seem to suggest that this connection may be less telling than we once thought (more on this later), but we should still continue to watch our sodium intake until more definitive research comes about.

With that explanation, prepare to be blasted with a big sodium bomb: The Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad from McDonald’s contains 1,070 milligrams of sodium — 120 milligrams more than a Big Mac — and the Chicken Garden Salad from Burger King contains 1,210 milligrams, which would almost put you at the ideal recommendation for a whole day.

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Of course, the big questions here are, how can you even fit that much salt in a salad, and why the hell would you? I asked both of those questions to Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, when I was ranking supposed healthy items, and she had no idea. “I’m not quite sure where the 500-plus calories or the 1,210 milligrams of sodium — which again, is ridiculously high for a salad — are coming from,” she told me, in reference to the same Burger King salad mentioned above.

But let’s back up for a second. When I sent these same numbers over to physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, she seemed to think that 1,210 milligrams of sodium is no big deal. “1,210 milligrams is just 1.21 grams, which is about an eighth of a teaspoon, or a pinch of salt,” she told me. “We need about five grams a day, so it’s no biggie to get 1.2 grams. If we don’t get enough salt day after day, our sodium declines and we can feel pretty bad.”

Clearly, then, there are several, constantly changing opinions about how much salt we should be consuming on a daily basis. The bottom line is that salt can affect different people in different ways, so as with many things, your best bet is to simply follow your doctor’s recommendations, since they’ll have a better idea of your overall health and needs.

Whether salt is the devil or not, though, I’d still like to understand why there’s so much of it in my salad. So I punched the McDonald’s Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad into their handy nutrition calculator, then customized my order to check the sodium value in each individual part of the salad.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Artisan Grilled Chicken Filet: 580 milligrams
  • Salad Blend: 30 milligrams
  • Southwest Vegetable Blend: 0 milligrams
  • Cilantro Lime Glaze: 135 milligrams
  • Shredded Cheddar/Jack Cheese: 115 milligrams
  • Lime: 0 milligrams
  • Chili Lime Tortilla Chips: 60 milligrams
  • Grill Seasoning: 160 milligrams

All of which adds up to… 1,080 milligrams of sodium, so I’m not entirely sure where that extra 10 milligrams came from.

Moving on, though, you can see that most of the sodium comes from the chicken and the grill seasoning, plus a sprinkle of salt on almost everything else. In many other cases, though, the dressing contributes a ton of salt: Ranch dressing from McDonald’s boasts an impressive 370 milligrams of sodium, and their balsamic vinaigrette has 400 milligrams. Furthermore, that same Chicken Garden Salad from Burger King contains only 770 milligrams of sodium without the dressing, which means the dressing itself contains 440 milligrams.

So now we know that the best parts of these salads — the meat and dressing — are the biggest culprits. As to why fast-food companies put so much salt in these ingredients, there are three possible explanations.

The first is that they tend to use mediocre ingredients that, without adding exorbitant amounts of salt, might otherwise render the food too bland. At least, that would explain why our staff was so unsatisfied after tasting the Taco Bell healthy menu, which was noticeably low in sodium. However, even restaurants that use fresh foods incorporate way more salt than people typically use while cooking at home — salt makes everything taste better, so it makes sense that restaurants (especially fast-food restaurants) use loads of it.

We also know that salt works as a preservative, removing moisture that might otherwise promote the growth of bacteria and mold, which could explain why McDonald’s hamburgers seem to live beyond the sands of time. That said, many fast-food chains add other, more potent preservatives to their foods, so using salt strictly for this purpose seems like an unnecessary step.

Lastly, and most likely, evidence suggests that consuming high amounts of salt can actually make you crave salty foods more often, which would certainly help fast-food chains bring customers back again and again. For instance, research published in 2011 found that babies who ate salty foods at an early age craved salt much more than those who stuck to low-sodium baby formulas, fruits and vegetables. On the flip side, studies show that people who cut their sodium intake for several months begin to crave it less and less. In fact, in 2016, researchers pinpointed an area in the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for regulating our emotions and rewarding us with feel-good chemicals when we, say, eat something tasty — that essentially makes us crave salt the more we eat it.

Since these fast-food chains are fairly tight-lipped about why exactly they add all that salt, it’s tough for us to know definitively. But realistically, the answer is most likely a combination of all three theories I mentioned above, with perhaps a little more emphasis on that last one, simply because it seems to be the most reasonable.

All of which is to say, stop using my amygdala against me, damn you.