Philadelphia works to reduce sodium in Chinese takeout food

24.08.2013 00:21

PHILADELPHIA – Amar Jones knows that
high-salt Chinese takeout isn’t good for
his high blood pressure. But the lure of
shrimp with broccoli is hard to resist.
So he was heartened recently to hear that
his favorite dish now has 20 percent less
sodium thanks to a citywide effort to
battle hypertension — a major risk factor
for heart disease.
“People might think I’m being extreme,
but you’re probably going to save some
lives,” Jones said. “You might save my life.”
Organizers have recruited more than 200
eateries across Philadelphia for the city’s
Healthy Chinese Takeout Initiative, which
aims to reduce the food’s salt content by
10 percent to 15 percent.
Participants have made several changes,
such as flavoring orders with chilies or
garlic instead of sodium; using less sauce;
distributing soy sauce packets only on
demand; and posting nutrition
information.
It’s the latest effort by a major U.S. city to
help people eat better. Many have already
banned trans-fats, and some require
restaurants to post calorie counts.
Philadelphia has focused on salt
consumption because 37 percent of
residents have high blood pressure. The
number jumps to 47 percent for African-
Americans, according to a 2012 survey by
the Public Health Management Corp.
The multi-agency initiative, which began
about a year ago, focuses on mom-and-
pop Chinese joints because they are “an
enormous industry” in the city, serving
about 3 million meals a year, said Health
Commissioner Donald Schwarz.
The dishes are cheap and easily available,
especially in low-income minority
neighborhoods that often lack
supermarkets and access to fresh
produce.
But many residents — and even takeout
owners — didn’t realize how the meals
affected their health, said Schwarz.
“In some restaurants, the restaurateurs
were really taken aback by the amount of
sodium in their food,” Schwarz said.
Dietary guidelines recommend that
Americans consume less than 2,300
milligrams of salt per day — about a
teaspoon. Yet an order of chicken lo mein
from local takeouts averaged 3,200
milligrams, while shrimp with broccoli had
1,900 milligrams.
Organizers offered a series of low-sodium
cooking classes last summer with the goal
of changing the ingredients but not the
taste. Nine months later, salt content in
those two dishes was down 20 percent in
samples from 20 restaurants. Researchers
plan to test the food again in a few
months, and expand the program to other
items.
Steven Zhu, president of the Greater
Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant
Association, recruited participants by
saying healthier food could attract more
customers. Still, some owners declined
because they worried about losing
business.
“Change is always not an easy process,
and there was some reluctance in the
beginning when we started this project,”
said Grace Ma, director of Temple
University’s Center for Asian Health.
Xue Xiu Liu, owner of Choy Yung Inn in
the city’s Point Breeze community, said
through a translator that he got involved
to improve customers’ health. Business is
about the same, Liu said.
Jones frequents the takeout because he
works just up the block at the Arabic
Institute. And he said he’s hardly alone,
often joined by colleagues or neighbors.
“We’re always going in there, even if we
don’t want to sometimes. There’s nothing
else to eat,” Jones said. “You want
something hot, you want something now,
so you order from the Chinese store.”
The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based
organization that promotes healthy eating,
praised the city for working with the
takeouts instead of pointing fingers. The
eateries are community gathering points
and not going away anytime soon, noted
spokeswoman April White.
“Let’s find ways to make everyone a part
of the solution,” White said.
The Food Trust is not part of the study.
Participants include the city health
department, Temple University, Asian
Community Health Coalition and
restaurant association; the project is
supported by local and federal funds.