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.
Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson