Shhh! Sodium reduction in progress

by Jeff Gelski
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Companies are experimenting with ways to reduce sodium in their products. Some even have set goals to reach by 2015. Muffled, however, may describe how some companies are trumpeting accomplishments.

Concerned that consumers might associate reduced sodium with reduced taste, companies in many instances are taking a stealth approach, or keeping the sodium reduction information off the front of packaging.

The practice may explain a Mintel report released in August 2012. It showed global launches of foods with low/no/reduced sodium claims declined 5% from 2010-11.

“I have not seen the data for 2012,” said Barbara Bufe Heidolph, principal, food phosphates, at ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis. “However, in general, most companies that have made pledges to reduce sodium (which is not all of them) have met their sodium targets and are not launching new products with claims. Many are using covert or stealth approaches and relying on the consumer to review labels and make decisions by comparison.”

Food manufacturers have put a stake in the ground and plan to reach significant sodium reduction goals by the end of 2015, said Don Mower, president and chief operating officer for Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, Minn.

“That’s not too far away,” he said and added, “Stealth is the way folks are moving at this point.”

For one goal, Omaha-based ConAgra Foods, Inc. in October 2009 said it planned to reduce salt across its portfolio of food products by 20% by 2015. For another goal, McDonald’s USA, Oak Brook, Ill., in July 2011 said it planned to reduce sodium an average of 15% overall across its national menu.

No doubt grain-based foods will factor into the goals. According to NHANES 2005-06, yeast bread accounted for 7.3% of sodium consumption in the U.S. diet. Other grain-based food products included pizza (6.3%), pasta and pasta dishes (5.1%) and tortillas, burritos and tacos (4.1%). The amount of grain-based foods eaten in the United States, more so than the amount of sodium in each grain-based food, may have more to do with the sodium percentages.

“The good fortune we have is that the American public still eats a number of grain-based food servings a day,” said Tom McCurry, executive vice-president of sales and marketing for Cain Food Industries, Inc., Dallas.

To avoid turning off consumers because of taste issues, bakers should reduce sodium in their products gradually, said Bill McKeown, vice-president of product innovation for AB Mauri North America, St. Louis.

“Really it is critical that bakeries don’t just turn the switch on and off,” he said.

Some companies in the United States are taking a longer time to revise products with lower sodium because they are making multiple revisions to products, said John Brodie, commercial development manager for bakery for Innophos, Inc., Cranbury, N.J. For example, a company might reduce sodium in a product and at the same time add whole grains or reduce the amount of fat.

Mr. Brodie added Mexico has taken a different approach to promoting sodium reduction. Companies in Mexico in some instances are stating the sodium content, as well as fat and calorie content, on the front of packages. Companies in that country also are prominently displaying sodium information on the back of packages.

Success in sodium reduction has taken place in the United Kingdom. In the year 2000, people there daily ate on average 9.5 grams of salt, including 3.7 grams of sodium. By June 2012 those figures were down to 8.1 grams of salt, including 3.2 grams of sodium.

Food formulators in the United Kingdom took a “stealth” approach in which a slow and steady reduction in sodium lessened the flavor impact on consumers, according to Kudos Blends, Ltd., Cleobury Mortimer, England.

Supermarkets drove sodium reduction in the United Kingdom, said Dinnie Jordan, director and founder of Kudos Blends.

“Manufacturers had to comply with supermarket requirements in order to supply their products,” she said. “This then sparked competition between supermarkets, which helped to encourage manufacturers to drive down their sodium levels.

“In the U.K. there is a need to reduce sodium, and many food companies want to comply, whereas in the U.S. there are no real pressures to reduce sodium other than by those companies looking to take a proactive approach to help consumers.”

Minimum benchmarks were set for major food categories in the United Kingdom. Benchmarks, for example, were set for scones (300 mg of sodium per 100 grams), white bread (400 mg), pancakes (300 mg), tortillas (400 mg) and cake (200 mg).

“These are voluntary guidelines set by the government, which are backed by supermarkets,” Ms. Jordan said. “This then increased the pressure on manufacturers to reduce the sodium content in line with the guidelines.”

U.S. supermarket shoppers are aware of sodium. According to the 2013 Food & Health Survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation, Washington, 6 out of 10 Americans are trying to limit or avoid sodium entirely for reasons such as preventing a future health condition, mentioned by 69% of respondents, and to help reduce the risk of heart disease, mentioned by 64%.

In the United States, the food industry continues to quietly strive for sodium reduction.

“Overall I think the marketplace is trying to get ahead of the game when it comes to sodium and fat,” Mr. McKeown said. “I think the industry quite honestly is trying to quietly produce more healthy products. Low sodium will be among that group of products that continues to grow, I believe.”
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