When it comes to sodium reduction, the squeeze is on. Whether it be nations implementing intake targets or global food companies introducing lower sodium products, efforts to reduce consumption are the strongest in years. Still, progress has differed from one country to the next.

In Europe, the Food Standards Agency earlier this year revised salt reduction targets for 2012 for 80 categories of foods. While voluntary targets already were in place for 2010, the F.S.A. established new targets it considered “more challenging” than previous targets. According to the agency, an independent government department established to protect the public’s health and consumer interests in relation to food, the goal is to ensure food retailers and manufacturers maintain the momentum in reducing salt levels.

By comparison, Health Canada’s Sodium Working Group, which was formed two years ago to create a national strategy to reduce salt consumption, has made little progress. According to an Oct. 7 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, part of the problem in forming a national strategy has been a lack of enthusiasm for sodium alternatives among the food industry.

Meanwhile, in the United States, sodium reduction is playing a key role in the development of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are set to come out late next year. While significant progress has been made by food companies in optimizing consumer acceptance of products reformulated for sodium reduction, the question remains as to what the minimum amount of dietary sodium should be to ensure proper functioning of the human body for all subsets of the population. In comments submitted earlier this month to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the Salt Institute raised the question as to whether public-policy dictated sodium intake goals are even achievable (see sidebar on Page 26).

Food companies make cuts

Nestle, S.A., Vevey, Switzerland, began reducing the salt content of some of its products more than 10 years ago, and since 2005 has had in place an official sodium reduction policy for its entire product range throughout the world as part of the company’s commitment to nutrition and health. That policy requires all products with sodium content greater than 100 mg per 100 kcal must reduce the sodium level by a
total of 25% in 5 years, or until the level of 100 mg per 100 kcal has been reached.

Nestle said reduction in sodium content of products will only be made where there is no increase in the risk of food spoilage, and emphasis has been put on food products that make a significant contribution to daily dietary sodium intake or are offered in fixed portion sizes.

Another European company, Unilever P.L.C., London, initiated an effort earlier this year to reduce the salt content of most everything in its food portfolio, which includes 22,000 products. The company’s goal is to reduce the salt content of products by the end of 2010 to help people reach the daily recommended dietary intake of 6 grams of salt per person. A further reduction would help limit salt intake to 5 grams per day, and Unilever hopes to help accomplish this by the end of 2015.

Closer to home, three companies taking aggressive action to reduce sodium levels in products are Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, and General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis.

Three years after launching a major initiative to reduce sodium in its soups and beverages through an all-natural sea salt, Campbell continues to make cuts in the amount of sodium in its products. The company is planning to introduce several new products for the 2010 soup season, including the original tomato soup with lower sodium sea salt, an additional 15% reduction of sodium in 25 Healthy Requests soups, and six V8 soups with reduced sodium.

Douglas Conant, president and chief executive officer at Campbell, said the company’s reduced sodium line of soup products had net sales of $500 million in 2008, up dramatically from just over $50 million five years ago. He added that the company’s low and reduced sodium soups represent more than 15% of retail sales of all low and reduced sodium food products sold in the United States.

General Mills has taken similar action in reducing the sodium content in its Progresso line, offering a Reduced Sodium line of soups featuring 30% less sodium than their regular counterparts.

In mid-October, ConAgra unveiled plans to reduce sodium levels across its portfolio of products by 20% by 2015.

“Sodium reduction is part of our ongoing work to make food more nutritious,” said Gary Rodkin, chief executive officer of ConAgra Foods. “Americans need less salt in their diets, and they want less salt in their diets.”

ConAgra Foods said its sodium reduction effort will include 20 brand and 160 product formulas across many categories in the supermarket. The company also said it will track its work in sodium reduction and make it publicly available each year through its social responsibility report.

The innovations taking place are evident in the number of new products that have been introduced featuring low/no/reduced sodium claims. According to Mintel International Ltd.’s Global New Product Database, the number of new products launched in the United States featuring such a claim has risen in each of the past four years, climbing from 398 in 2005 to 635 in 2008. Through mid-November 2009, the number of new products with a low/no/reduced sodium claim sits at 367, Mintel said. Two categories — bakery products and fruits and vegetables — already have seen more new products launched than they did in all of 2008.

Innovative ingredient options

Food companies aren’t the only ones putting the squeeze on sodium. Ingredient companies, too, are making advances at a rapid pace, seeking to change the perception that reduced sodium products fall short on taste and texture.

Danisco USA Inc., New Century, Kas., earlier this year introduced Grindsted SaltPro, an ingredient with the functional characteristics of salt, including texture, firmness and flavor, but with the ability to reduce the sodium content of a product by up to 50%.

Janelle Crawford, market analyst, culinary, Danisco USA, cited several positive attributes linked to SaltPro, such as its ease of use, its ability to retain key sensory attributes and original product qualities, and its suitability for a variety of applications.

“That’s one of the great things about the product … the same product can be used across multiple applications, including meat, culinary (soups, sauces, marinades), and bakery, for example,” Ms. Crawford said. “In meat and poultry applications, SaltPro can still allow for protein extraction, which is important in this industry.”

She added that SaltPro I and II contain potassium chloride and ingredients that may be labeled as natural flavors.

“These ingredients help mask the off-flavors that can be present when using (potassium chloride) so manufacturers end up with a reduced-sodium product that consumers will actually enjoy,” Ms. Crawford said.

Bon Vivant International, Edgewater, N.J., has launched NutraSalt 66, a proprietary product harvested from the Mediterranean region that includes natural salts and rich minerals from the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.
Bez Arkush, founder and c.e.o. of Bon Vivant, said it took more than six years of research and development to achieve the 66% reduction in sodium content and included extensive testing in many applications, including baking, soups, soufflés, meats, cheese, marinates and sauces, pickling, snacks and beverages. The company also was able to eliminate the bitter metallic aftertaste that frequently is present with other lower sodium offerings, Mr. Arkush said.

“An added benefit to our offering is that every serving of NutraSalt provides not only less sodium but adds needed natural potassium to attain a perfect potassium-to-sodium balance,” Mr. Arkush said.

For food service providers, NutraSalt may be used in quick-service restaurants, schools, hotels, prisons and other establishments where food is prepared, Mr. Arkush said, while the company offers a full line of seasonings for the retail market.

The new salts are available in 13 flavors, including low sodium sea salt, seasoned salt, Texas BBQ, savory garlic, zesty Italian, lemon dill, lemon herbs, robusto adobo, spicy Cajun, bold chipotle, African medley, Asian fusion and classic curry.

Nearly two years after introducing its SaltWise sodium reduction system that can reduce sodium in foods between 25% and 50%, Minneapolis-based Cargill this past June debuted Premier brand potassium chloride. The granular, food grade, odorless, white crystalline salt contains tricalcium phosphate as an anticaking agent, and its low water activity and function make it an appealing partial replacement ingredient, according to Cargill.

“Premier potassium chloride is a food grade potassium chloride that food manufacturers can use in their sodium reduction efforts,” said Carlos Rodriguez, marketing manager for Cargill Salt. “Today, potassium chloride is the best substitute for sodium chloride, and it works well as a foundation for significantly reducing sodium in processed foods. It mimics salt in ways such as texture and protein binding, water retention capacity and fermentation control. However, there are some limitations because potassium chloride is not a one-to-one replacement for salt, so some reformulation may be needed to offset any bitter metallic taste that can be seen at higher usage levels.”

Mr. Rodriguez said Premier was developed for replacement of sodium chloride or potassium enrichment in a broad range of food processing applications and is an ideal fit for snack foods, ham and bacon curing, cheeses, beverages, seasoning blends, bakery products, margarine and frozen dough.

Salt Institute takes skeptical stance on power of public policy

Richard Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, Alexandria, Va., in a Nov. 5 letter to members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, said it will be difficult for the committee to craft a meaningful guideline on dietary sodium without considering American’s health in totality or whether it is even possible to change population salt intake levels.

Mr. Hanneman said he was particularly disappointed the committee failed to mention a new study, “Can Dietary Sodium Intake be Modified by Public Policy?”, during its most recent talks on Nov. 4-5. The study analyzed existing research to determine whether sodium or salt intake follows a pattern consistent with a range established by the brain to protect normal function of organs. According to the study, policy makers should consider the evidence that sodium intake is physiologically set and tightly regulated by networks in the human brain, thereby making it unlikely that public policy can change it.

“The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee would ignore this study at its peril,” Mr. Hanneman said. “If confirmed by further research, it would show the government’s entire strategy to reduce sodium intake below natural levels is unachievable.”