Pace of sodium reduction increases

by Allison Sebolt
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The unveiling last week of the Pinch of Salt snack line of Lay’s potato chips, Tostitos tortilla chips, Fritos corn chips and Ruffles potato chips by Frito-Lay North America, Plano, Texas, demonstrates the pace at which consumer demand is rising for lower sodium products.

"The No. 1 request from our consumers is for low-sodium versions of the products they love the most," said Jaya Kumar, chief marketing officer for Frito-Lay North America. "While consumers request low-sodium versions of their favorite products, they aren’t willing to compromise on taste."

The Pinch of Salt products have 75 mg of sodium per 1-oz serving, which is 30% to 50% less than the original products. Others in the processed food industry believe achieving reductions of this magnitude is difficult and that federal regulations should be changed to allow for labeling of smaller reduction levels.

Low-sodium products have held steady in terms of overall sales and product introductions in recent years, but some in the industry believe federal regulations should be changed to allow for labeling of smaller reduction levels.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration requires a product to have 25% less sodium than the original before it may be labeled as having reduced sodium.

"Because consumer acceptance is critical, some designations beyond current authorized claims could be helpful," the National Restaurant Association said in a written statement to the F.D.A. during a recent comment period aimed at sodium issues. "For example, expanded nutrient content claims that would allow manufacturers to label small changes in sodium reductions such as 5%, 10% or 20% could be beneficial. Due to the fact that sodium reduction needs to be a gradual process, allowing manufacturers to highlight small changes would encourage them to make these changes.

"If the permitted claims for sodium are too restrictive, the industry may not attempt to lower sodium content in order to make nutrient content claims because drastically changing formulations and reducing sodium content could negatively impact consumer acceptance of products."

The F.D.A. closed a comment period on March 28 following a November public hearing about policies relating to salt and sodium content in food.

Bob Earl, senior director for nutrition policy with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, also said the F.D.A. needs to explore some flexibility with claims as it becomes harder for companies to keep reducing sodium levels in products by such amounts.

"Industry is interested and in tune to consumer health and wellness drivers and will continue to respond both in products where it may be mentioned, labeled, advertised as well as making changes silently," Mr. Earl said.

In 2007, there were 552 products introduced with low/no or reduced sodium compared with 482 products in 2006 and 379 in 2005, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database. Sales for low-/no-/reduced-sodium products for the year ended Feb. 23 was $11,916,750,505 in food, drug and mass merchandiser channels excluding Wal-Mart, up 4% from $11,515,404,546 during the previous year, according to The Nielsen Co. The biggest categories for low-sodium sales included carbonated beverages, juices, tea and soup, according to Nielsen.

Lynn Dornblaser, senior analyst with Mintel, Chicago, said aging consumers, increased media discussion about the role of sodium in the diet and the success Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., has had with its reduced-sodium products all are contributing to the growth of the low-sodium market.

"Given that Campbell Soup has shown it can be done successfully sends a very strong message to the rest of the industry about the fact that it can be done successfully," Ms. Dornblaser said.

Campbell Soup introduced 32 new or reformulated soups with lower sodium natural sea salt in 2006, and in 2007 they launched 14 new or reformulated lower sodium soups. The company also recently announced it is introducing 36 reformulated ready-to-serve varieties under the "Campbell’s Select Harvest" brand and reformulating 12 condensed children’s soups to meet criteria for "healthy" foods.

"This is another significant step in our leadership in sodium reduction," said Douglass R. Conant, president and chief executive officer of Campbell Soup. "Our lower sodium products continue to outperform expectations, and we are bringing former consumers back to our soup franchise.

"Campbell’s sodium-reduction innovations have led the industry and also have struck a chord with consumers who continue to demand great-tasting meals that are both convenient and nourishing."

The new low-sodium products will be introduced this fall.

Currently, a big barrier to reducing sodium in foods is inadequate technology.

"For an existing product, there are few useful substitutes that will deliver a salty taste as well in products," Mr. Earl said. "So more work needs to be done by government, by industry and collaboratively on looking for salt substitutes or alternative ingredients that can be used that will meet consumers taste expectations."

To help overcome the technology barrier, DSM Food Specialties, Delft, The Netherlands, has two sodium-reducing product portfolios, Maxarome and Maxarite. Maxarome may lower sodium content of food by 25% to 50% without compromising palatability, mouthfeel, structure or taste and is used in soups, snacks, prepared meals, dressings and sauces. Maxarite is designed for bakery and dairy applications and may reduce sodium content in processed cheese, cheddar cheese, cottage cheese, bread and cereal by up to 50%.

In addition, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, Wis., has introduced KCLean Salt, which may reduce sodium content of table salt in half. It is a combination of potassium chloride and sodium chloride that matches the taste of salt and retains texture, functionality and mouthfeel.

Ms. Dornblaser said reduced-sodium products primarily are purchased by consumers who must have them for health reasons, but as media coverage and public awareness mount, it will begin to pressure companies to increase their reduced-sodium options.

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