Salt Reduction

Fast Food Challenge: Building Healthier Meals

The Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) sector has always been an innovative space. Keeping up with busy, hungry consumers through evolving lifestyle trends requires an agile approach. Fast food is so successful because it’s always adapting to consumer needs. Any food that we’re craving at the moment, no matter the time or place, we can find QSRs right there ready to give us exactly what we want.

Today the fast-food industry faces what may be its biggest challenge yet. While the industry has mastered the processes involved in providing consumers with both choice and convenience – delivering healthier products that still taste great presents a dilemma. 

Fast food meal sets offered by both QSRs and retailers are often so high in sugar, saturated fat and sodium that they would be classed as High Fat, Sugar and Salt (HFSS) products. The majority of fast-food meals around the world are high in sodium, with some exceeding daily RDI. Take a look at the examples below, and how they stack up against WHO and FDA sodium targets. 

The classic burger meal

The biggest QSR in the world is known for its tasty burgers and fries. This restaurant was one of the very first to offer “meal” packages, with its iconic children’s meal boxes. Today, their meal deals have expanded to include promotional collaborations with musicians. Here is a selection from their current meals:

Sweet ‘n’ Sour Meal Deal

  • Double Beef Burger 
  • 4 chicken nuggets
  • Medium fries
  • Med soda
  • BBQ sauce
  • Sweet ‘n’ sour sauce

Total sodium = 1,838mg 

% of WHO daily target= 92% • % of FDA daily target= 80%

Double Cheeseburger Meal

  • One double cheeseburger 
  • Medium fries
  • Medium soda

Total sodium = 1,685mg 

% of WHO daily target= 84% • % of FDA daily target= 73%

Crispy Chicken Meal

  • 1 spicy chicken burger
  • Medium fries
  • Medium iced tea

Total sodium = 1,510mg 

% of WHO daily target= 75% • % of FDA daily target= 66%

Salty sandwich combos

While the burger-and-fries combo has long been somewhat vilified for its high fat and salt, it’s far from being the worst for excessive sodium. 

Many other QSRs have surprisingly high levels of sodium in their meal deals – even more than the classic burger meal. 

Fresh made-to-order sandwiches have become a popular choice for consumers looking for a healthier quick lunch option. The leading sandwich QSR offers many meal snack options with high-sodium like cookies and crisps. In nearly all cases, the total sodium of these meals approaches or exceeds the 2000mg mark. That’s the maximum recommended amount of sodium for an entire day – in one meal. 

Looking at three examples of meal combinations, we can see they are all high in sodium. 

Large Meal Deal 

  • 1 large chicken & bacon sandwich with cheese and southwest sauce
  • 1 25g bag ready salted crisps
  • 1 chocolate chip cookie
  • 375ml bottled soda

Total sodium = 2,106mg 

% of WHO daily target= 105% • % of FDA daily target= 92%

Small Meal Deal

  • 1 small vegan meatball sandwich with vegan cheese 
  • 1 25g bag wholegrain sweet chili crisps
  • 1 vegan double chocolate cookie
  • 375ml bottled water

Total sodium = 952mg 

% of WHO daily target= 48% • % of FDA daily target= 41%

Wrap Meal Deal

  • 1 Italian meat wrap with mozzarella cheese
  • 1 25g bag cheese and onion crisps
  • 1 macadamia nut cookie
  • 375ml bottled water

Total sodium = 1,326mg 

% of WHO daily target= 66% • % of FDA daily target= 58%

Buckets of sodium in chicken meals

Chicken QSRs have seen massive growth in recent years as more consumers across the world discovered the crispy style fried chicken made popular in the Southern US. With chicken available in patties, whole pieces or in reformed shapes, there are several combos on offer.

While chicken enjoys a healthy reputation as a lean protein, we found the highest sodium meals at one of the most popular chicken QSRs. Of the meal combos we looked at, all exceeded the WHO daily sodium target. Here are a few examples:

Chicken Tower Burger Meal

  • Chicken fillet burger
  • Regular fries
  • Orange drink

Total sodium = 2,256mg

% of WHO daily target= 113% • % of FDA daily target= 98%

Boneless Chicken Box Meal

  • 3 x mini chicken fillets
  • Small popcorn chicken
  • Side gravy
  • Regular fries
  • Dip
  • Regular soda

Total sodium = 2,160mg

% of WHO daily target= 108% • % of FDA daily target= 94%

Bucket for One Meal

  • 2 pieces of chicken
  • 2 mini fillets
  • 2 spicy hot wings
  • Regular fries
  • Ice tea

Total sodium = 2,204mg

% of WHO daily target= 110% • % of FDA daily target= 96%


High sodium Tex-Mex

Famous for its tacos, the most popular Mexican-themed QSR offers a range of meal deals. Customers can choose their favourite combination of a taco or burrito and a side, with a fountain drink. Here are a few examples from their menu.

Two Taco Meal

  • 2 x beef tacos with cheese
  • Side of seasoned fries
  • 1 fountain drink

Total sodium = 896mg 

% of WHO daily target= 45% • % of FDA daily target= 39%

Chicken Burrito Meal

  • Fried chicken burrito
  • Side of nachos with cheese sauce
  • 1 fountain drink

Total sodium = 1,760mg 

% of WHO daily target= 88% • % of FDA daily target= 77%

Chicken Chalupa Meal

  • 2 x grilled chicken chalupas 
  • Side of seasoned fries
  • 1 fountain drink

Total sodium = 1,640mg 

% of WHO daily target= 82% • % of FDA daily target= 71%

Grab-and-go combos

The meal deal isn’t just for QSRs. Supermarkets and other retailers have entered the “grab-and-go” food market with great success. They offer consumers a convenient one-stop option where they can pick up a quick lunch while doing their grocery shopping or collecting a prescription. 

While food stores normally have a more wholesome image than a drive-thru fast food outlet, the truth is that grab-and-go meals from the supermarket can be even higher in sodium than a burger and fries. 

Here are a few examples of grab-and-go meal combos available from some of the biggest retailers:

Combo 1

  • Chicken sandwich
  • Pack of olives
  • Energy drink

Total sodium = 1,680mg 

% of WHO daily target= 84% • % of FDA daily target= 73%

Combo 2

  • Chicken and bacon sandwich
  • Pack of mini sausages
  • protein drink

Total sodium = 1,800mg 

% of WHO daily target= 90% • % of FDA daily target= 78%

Combo 3

  • Cheese and pickle sandwich
  • 2 mini pork pies
  • Energy drink

Total sodium = 1,176mg 

% of WHO daily target= 59% • % of FDA daily target= 51%

Why so salty?

So where is all the salt and sodium in these meals? The short answer is: everywhere. 

In each component, from the processed meat to the bread and condiments. And then there are the snacks. As we’ve seen, the snacks and sides included in these meals contribute a significant amount of the total sodium. 

Snacks like crisps and other extruded products are a classic side for a sandwich. Recent UK research found that 36% of all meal deals include crisps. Some flavours have as much as 160mg of sodium in a single serve pack. The health advocacy group Action on Salt found that 30% of the snacks in high street meal offers exceed the PHE maximum sodium targets. 

Other snackable size processed meat sides made from chicken and pork can pack a lot of sodium in their seasonings. Mini chicken tenders and “cocktail” sausages are examples of these. Plus, they typically include a dipping sauce, adding even more sodium to the meal. 

Building better meals, with less sodium

As we’ve seen, meal deals have a big sodium problem. So what’s the solution?

The good news is that it’s NOT reducing dosage of salt in the recipes. Nor is it reducing choice or flavour in meal deal selections. 

The solution is to replace ordinary salt 1:1 with SALTWELL® to achieve a significant salt reduction within each produced component of a fast-food meal. And by doing that one does not have to reduce the authentic salty taste that consumers crave in fast food products either. SALTWELL® is a totally natural sea salt that contains less sodium. It contains no chemicals nor additives, just pure sea salt with 35% less sodium. 

Because SALTWELL® tastes and functions just like ordinary salt it is used as a 1:1 replacement for sodium chloride in manufactured food products, such as processed meats and planted based meats, dips, sauces, and seasonings, and even buns, fries and coatings. Wherever salt is traditionally used, SALTWELL® will serve the same function and sensory purpose, however it has 35% less sodium, naturally. And is clean label focused.

QSR brands looking to develop healthier, great tasting products that consumers will love can get in touch here to learn more about how SALTWELL® can help reduce sodium levels without compensating on any function or sensory properties. Samples available on request.