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Cutting back on salt and hoping you won’t notice

You may not be able to taste it, but that taco you’re about to devour may have a little less salt than it used to.

Whether serving fast food or cooking up gourmet meals, restaurants are cutting back on salt. It’s partly for your health, but it’s also to head off regulators who have already ordered them to post calorie counts on their menus and stop frying with trans fats.

Carl’s Jr. has cut 20% of the sodium from its hamburger buns. El Torito has whacked up to 30% of the sodium from its sauces and marinades. Taco Bell said last week that it had cut 20% of the sodium from its menu across the board.

“Everybody in the industry is looking at sodium reduction,” said Brad Haley, marketing chief for CKE Restaurants, which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains. “Because we think this is the next legislative requirement that is going to come down.”

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With federal officials preparing to release new rules requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, restaurant owners say they are convinced that salt is next. Throughout the industry, companies are rushing to cut back now, so they’re not caught by surprise if officials act quickly.

But here’s the rub: They hope you won’t notice. Tell customers they’re being served a low-sodium dish, the reasoning goes, and they’ll declare it bland even before they taste it.

“This is one of those reverse PR deals,” said Greg Drescher, executive director of strategic initiatives for the Culinary Institute of America. “You don’t want people to notice what you’re doing.”

Campbell Soup Co. may have learned the hard way. Reducing salt in its products too publicly -- and by too much -- is widely believed to have contributed to slumping sales in recent years. Just last week, the company announced it was adding back salt into many of its products.

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But so far, restaurateurs say, there seems to be little public reaction to the changes they’re making.

At the Yard House restaurant at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles, customer Mark Maren said he had no clue that the Irvine-based chain recently switched to low-sodium soy sauce and quietly cut salt in several dishes.

Maren said he never thinks about salt when ordering his food -- and definitely would not have been drawn to an item if it had been labeled low-sodium. “It’s not a big concern,” he said. “I don’t add salt, but what’s in there is in there.”

Socorro Leano, who was eating a plate of penne with chicken, is slim and fit. But she avoids dishes with too much salt. The pasta, she said, hit the right mix: “Not too salty, but not too bland.”

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Americans love salt. Despite 40 years of public health warnings that too much sodium causes high blood pressure, leading to strokes and heart attacks, U.S. consumption has remained constant. And at an average of 3,400 milligrams a day, we’re eating way more than the recommended 1,500 to 2,300.

In fact, we’re in the middle of a gourmet salt boom. Boutique shops sell pink Himalayan rock salt and black salt flavored with truffles, as well as varieties with touches of lime, chile or espresso.

But if restaurants had to print sodium content on their menus, the numbers could be eye-opening.

A restaurant meal can have as many as 5,000 milligrams of sodium in it, experts say. An Angus bacon and cheeseburger from McDonald’s, for example, has about 2,000 milligrams -- about a teaspoon’s worth. A single serving of salsa at Chipotle has 510 milligrams.

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“Sodium should be on the menu next to calories,” said Laguna Beach resident Ann Weisbrod, 70, who has been on a low-sodium diet since developing high blood pressure during pregnancy. “It would shock people.”

Last year, a report by the National Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences that studies health and healthcare, called on regulators to require reductions in the salt content of packaged and restaurant food, saying that the industry had failed to police itself.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not acted on the recommendation. But soon after, the city of New York asked companies to voluntarily reduce sodium in food, and most restaurant owners are convinced that regulations will soon follow.

Dozens of state health departments and companies including H.J. Heinz Co.; Interstate Bakeries Corp., owner of the Hostess brand; Target Corp.; Subway owner Doctor’s Associates Inc.; Starbucks Corp.; and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have signed on to reduce salt. Even Morton Salt Inc., the nation’s biggest producer, said it was working with manufacturers to trim sodium from food products.

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But it’s not going to be easy.

Salt doesn’t just make food salty -- it’s a preservative that keeps meats fresh, and it is used in baking, said Bruce Frazer, senior vice president of CKE. Figuring out how much can be removed is complicated, requiring changes in the technology used for preparing, storing and transporting the food.

The salt industry is skeptical about the moves to cut back. The amount of sodium in processed foods went down in nearly every category between September 2009 and September 2010.

But the use of table salt went up during the same period, showing that when the food they bought became less salty, consumers just shook more of it on at their tables, said Morton Satin of the Salt Institute trade group.

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Right now, most restaurant chains are going after the easiest fixes, using fresher cheeses that have less salt in them than aged ones, or adding less salt to the cooking process.

Some high-end restaurants are leaving the salt out of many dishes altogether; others are providing consumers with a bowl of salty cheese or a shaker of gourmet salt to add flavor at their tables.

“The movement in foodie culture is to let these very high-quality ingredients speak for themselves,” said Leah Faust, creative director for the restaurant Bottega Louie in downtown Los Angeles. The restaurant may put glowing pink Himalayan sea salt on its tables, but behind the scenes its chefs are using less, she said.

At Vertical Wine Bistro in Pasadena, chef Laurent Quenioux uses no salt at all to make a summer soup of roasted peppers and tomatoes, said general manager Manuel Mesta. Instead, Quenioux drizzles smoked black gourmet salt around the bowl, encouraging diners to scoop a little onto their spoons if they want that flavor.

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Gourmet salt aficionados say the fancy stuff is more healthful because it’s natural, reclaimed from the sea or chopped out of the side of a mountain.

Chef Vitaly Paley says these salts have more flavor, so he can use less and still season the food at Paley’s Place, his Portland, Ore., restaurant.

“I’m now using sea salt as my all-purpose salt,” he said. “It leaves a very minerally, very pleasant taste.”

sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

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