US consumers need convincing about low-sodium foods

Posted by Josette Dunn on 28th April 2010

supermarket shopping

The latest push to cut salt (or sodium, as our US cousins call the ingredient) from packaged foods has taken off across the Atlantic, much to the satisfaction of consumer advocates.

However, for all the laudable moves by some of the largest food manufacturers in the US, there remains a concern that their plans to cut salt may not gain the traction needed to improve public health – for the simple notion that consumer demand for low-sodium or sodium-free foods is in question.

Kraft Foods, Heinz and Unilever are among 16 companies to have joined the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), a voluntary programme first announced in January and drawn up to cut the level of salt in packaged and restaurant foods by 25% over five years.

The NSRI was first announced back in January but yesterday (26 April) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg formally launched the programme and claimed the cuts could save “tens of thousands of lives” from cardiovascular disease.

Mayor Bloomberg has gained something of a reputation as public health advocate. In recent months, Bloomberg has targeted restaurants with the inclusion of calorie counts on menus and called for a tax on soda – much to the chagrin of soft drink makers.

The move on salt has won praise from consumer groups, although there does remain concern that many food makers have yet to sign up to the programme and some have called for mandatory cuts in sodium.

“While I’m glad that 16 companies have chosen to participate in the initiative, too many companies – including giants such as PepsiCo, ConAgra, McDonald’s, and Burger King – have chosen to skip it. The limited participation indicates the need for federal health agencies to set mandatory national limits on the amount of sodium allowed in packaged and restaurant food,” says Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael Jacobson.

The CSPI’s call echoed that made by healthcare professionals last week. According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), reductions in sodium could prevent more than 100,000 deaths in the US each year.

The IOM said, however, that voluntary moves had not succeeded in cutting sodium consumption and argued mandatory limits needed to be introduced.

“Reducing sodium content in food requires new government standards for the acceptable level of sodium” the IOM said. “The goal is to slowly, over time, reduce the sodium content of the food supply in a way that goes unnoticed by most consumers as individuals’ taste sensors adjust to the lower levels of sodium.”

And therein lies the nub of the problem. Food makers can, either voluntarily or by statute, cut the levels of sodium in their products but there are signs that US consumers are not snapping up low-sodium or sodium-free foods – due in part to concern over how food tastes when salt is stripped out. Some commentators have also been keen to point out that sodium remains an essential nutrient for the body.

Research issued last week said that, even as food manufacturers launch more and more products with less and less salt, the consumption of low sodium and sodium-free foods is lower than shoppers’ apparent anxiety over the ingredient.

“It’s easier to aspire to a positive behaviour than to actually do it. In my 30 years of observing Americans eating behaviours, there is often a gap between what consumers say and what they do,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at researchers The NPD Group.

The New York guidelines announced by Mayor Bloomberg give food makers room to decide which products they will reformulate to include less salt, as long as the new, low-sodium lines sell enough to meet the target of cutting salt consumption by 25%.

But the question remains: will the new lines sell well enough to enable the manufacturers to meet those guidelines and, crucially for the nation’s health, cut the number of deaths brought on by the too high consumption of salt?

Manufacturers can reduce sodium in certain products but there needs to be close attention paid to what consumers want and how they respond to salt being reduced from items in their shopping basket.

Simply put, it will be consumer demand that drives this process. If shoppers want low-fat alternatives and they’re showing it by what they buy in store, food makers will respond. And, right now, the jury is out on whether the necessary level of demand for low-sodium products exists.

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