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A health initiative worth its salt? Philly works to reduce sodium in Chinese takeout food

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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 favourite dish now has 20 per cent 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 per cent to 15 per cent.

Participants have made several changes, such as flavouring 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 per cent of residents have high blood pressure. The number jumps to 47 per cent 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 neighbourhoods 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 per cent 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 neighbours.

"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.

___

Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson

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