New York City's Crusade Against Sodium

Starting next week, the city will require chain restaurants to place salt-shaker warnings on menus beside items with 2,300 milligrams of sodium or more.


A judge ruled that New York City could go ahead with its first-in-the-nation initiative requiring all restaurants with 15 or more national locations to place a salt-shaker icon on menus beside items that contain 2,300 milligrams of sodium or more, the recommended daily allowance. The regulation, which had been challenged in court by the National Restaurant Association, was given the green light on Wednesday.

Biohazard? (NYCDOH)

“If your meal has so much sodium that it merits a salt shaker on the menu, then—for the sake of your health—order something else," Mayor Bill de Blasio said after the ruling.

The mayor, who was infamously once pictured eating a sodium-heavy sausage-and-moz pizza with a knife and fork, was the warning’s leading proponent. The Department of Health estimates that the warnings will apply to 10 percent of all menu items.

While the regulation technically went into effect in December, restaurants will be fined $600 for non-compliance starting next week. The responses initially varied: Applebee’s quickly complied while Panera and Subway pledged to comply. McDonald’s made a point of noting that none of its items exceed the limit.

That’s not to say the regulation is popular. Opponents quickly chalked the regulation up to a wasteful manifestation of the Nanny State akin to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed efforts to ban large sodas in the city. But there are more reasons to take the regulation with a grain...of skepticism.

First, a question: What do New York City’s fanciest restaurants, hippest food trucks, brightest supermarkets, and humblest bodegas all have in common? Under the Big Apple’s newest regulation, they can serve all the sodium-laden food they want without warning and never be charged with a salt.

OK, it’s a terrible joke, but the regulation is terribly inconsistent. And if history is any precedent, sodium warnings will be ineffective. In 2008, New York City pioneered the required listing of calorie counts on the menus of chain restaurants. Researchers quickly discovered the counts made no difference in consumer-ordering habits and, in most cases, even made them worse. These findings were confirmed a few years later and then once again on the five-year anniversary of the regulation.

But perhaps worse yet, the science behind the regulation is inconclusive. A week before the judge’s ruling, the National Restaurant Association received some good news in the form of a paper by two influential Columbia University professors and one former board member of the New York City Department of Health. The study, a meta-analysis of more than three decades of sodium studies, concluded no scientific consensus has coalesced around the hypothesis that lowering one’s salt intake had “population benefits.”

After vetting these 249 reports for bias, the paper noted that “54 percent were supportive of the hypothesis, 33 percent were contradictory and 13 percent were inconclusive.”A recent survey of The Atlantic reflects the same discord, again, and again.

Accordingly, part of the NRA’s case was predicated on a free-speech argument; namely that the city was forcing businesses to post information with which they disagreed.

“Some people love salty food and are just going to eat those salty foods regardless of whether there's a salt icon next to it,” said Supreme Court Justice Eileen Rakower in issuing her ruling. “I believe information is power.”

In an Wednesday evening email to The Atlantic, a NRA spokesperson decried the ruling:

Today's decision by the court to uphold this arbitrary, onerous and costly mandate is a blow to small businesses owners-- the franchisees that own and operate New York's restaurants.

The Association advocated for a national federal menu labeling standard to provide consumers with uniform nutritional information when dining out. The decision by the DoH to arbitrarily mandate warning labels for an essential nutrient, despite the fact that the information is available upon request under the federal guidelines is not only unnecessary, it undoes the very uniformity we worked for.

The statement added the group would pursue its legal options going forward.