Set for takeoff

by Eric Schroeder
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In a report issued earlier this fall by Mintel International Group Ltd., it was noted that the incidence of watching sodium intake is relatively low but has been rising in recent years. The reason for the spike in interest was connected to the fact that excessive sodium intake may contribute to hypertension and risk of cardiovascular disease — conditions of which consumers increasingly are becoming more aware.

According to Mintel, 15% of adults ages 18 and older who are watching or controlling their diet cited salt intake as one of the reasons for their change in attitude in 2009, up from 12% in 2006. Meanwhile, 29% of those surveyed in 2009 listed “low sodium” as a key attribute they look for in food, up from 25% in 2006.

For food and beverage companies, acting swiftly to address product formulations and filling the need for a category “ripe for additional development” has become a priority.

Cuts at Campbell, Nestle

At Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., sodium reduction has taken on greater importance as the company reformulates and introduces products across a number of its brands. In late June, the company began shipping 21 varieties of Campbell’s condensed soups to retailers nationwide at sodium levels reduced by 25% to 45%. With the roll-out, Campbell’s has reduced the sodium content in nearly 130 soup varieties, including 45 condensed soups.

All 21 varieties were in stores by mid-September, and most feature a message on the front label that reads “Less Sodium – With Natural Sea Salt Added.”

More recently, Campbell disclosed plans to cut sodium in a majority of its Pepperidge Farm grain-based food portfolio. By February 2011, 80% of the Pepperidge Farm portfolio of bread, rolls and bagels will have at least 25% less sodium than the regular products. Overall, 69 varieties of products will see further sodium reduction. Currently, nearly half of Pepperidge Farm’s sliced bread products are at the 25% less sodium level.

“Reducing sodium while maintaining delicious taste and quality is a complex process — particularly for bread since salt provides a great deal of the functionality needed for bread to rise and to deliver the taste and texture people enjoy (different from the function of salt in many other products),” said Nan Redmond, communications director for Pepperidge Farm. “Our experience in leveraging lower sodium natural sea salt in our recipe development has enabled us to reduce sodium in many products so that people can still enjoy the whole grains, fiber and taste they want.”

Overall, Campbell Soup Co. has more than 200 reduced sodium products, an eight-fold increase from five years ago.

Nestle Prepared Foods Co., New York, plans to reduce sodium content in its products by an additional 10% from earlier reduction targets. The initiative, which will be gradual and last through 2015, includes the company’s Stouffer’s, Lean Cuisine, Buitoni, Hot Pockets and Lean Pockets brands.

Spearheading the multi-brand initiative is Stouffer’s Farmers’ Harvest, a line of three family size meals and seven new individual servings. The new line is expected to be available nationally by year’s end and features whole grains, sea salt, olive oil and, in several instances, a half-cup of vegetables. Sodium content for the Farmers’ Harvest line ranges from 660 mg to 950 mg.

Other changes Stouffer’s has made to its product line include decreasing sodium content in its 12-oz and 20-oz packages of classic Stouffer’s Macaroni & Cheese to 820 mg per serving from 920 mg per serving in 2005. Meanwhile, the company’s Lean Cuisine line, which was launched in 1981 with 10 products at an average sodium level above 1,000 mg, now consists of 123 varieties with an average sodium level of 606 mg.

“Consumers often have associated sodium reduction with reduced flavor,” said Christine Dahm, vice-president of marketing for Nestle Prepared Foods. “So we’ve been thoughtful about how we proceeded to make these stepwise, moderate reductions. We’ve avoided negative reactions and we believe we’re helping consumers gradually adapt their taste for salt — which helps them make choices more likely to last. We’re very fortunate to be part of Nestle S.A., with access to incredible knowledge and expertise. You may know that Nestle S.A. had established worldwide policies on sodium, sugar and trans fat. Those policies have helped to shape our product development efforts here in the U.S.”

In the dairy case, Sargento Foods Inc., Plymouth, Wis., is building on its initial foray into reduced sodium cheese earlier this year with the launch of two new flavors: Pepper Jack slices and Mild Cheddar snacks.

Like the Colby-Jack slices, Provolone slices, Colby-Jack snack sticks, String snacks, Mild Cheddar shredded cheese and Mozzarella shredded cheese launched in March, the new flavors have 25% less ‍sodium than their regular counterparts. Depending on the variety, the cheeses have between 90 and 140 mg of sodium per serving.

“Consumers tell us that they cannot taste a difference in flavor or texture, and that it helps them meet sodium requirements in their diet without sacrificing taste,” said Chris Groom, director of core marketing meal enhancers for Sargento. “In developing the product, both taste and texture were challenges, as sodium plays a functional role in the cheese making process. Since Sargento will not sacrifice taste, it was imperative that we develop reduced sodium cheeses that met consumers’ expectations.”

Banking on beverages

In the beverage category, the sport drink market has become a popular venue for new products featuring reduced sodium content.

A typical 8-oz serving of Gatorade contains 110 mg of sodium, or about 5% of the Daily Value, while an 8-oz serving of Powerade contains 50 mg, or about 2% of the Daily Value. Both products are designed to provide nutrient replenishment during and post-exercise, but other companies are differentiating their sports beverages by highlighting the fact the products contain no sodium or are low in sodium.

Skinny Nutritional Corp., Bala Cynwyd, Pa., promoted the release of Skinny Water as “the only great tasting, sodium-free sport drink.”

Also last month, Celsius Holdings, Inc., Boca Raton, Fla., added to its non-carbonated pre-exercise fitness drink line with the launch of two new flavors: strawberry kiwi and lemon iced tea. The beverages are a blend of green tea with EGCG, ginger, caffeine, calcium, chromium, B vitamins and vitamin C, and according to Celsius are “very low in sodium.” A 12-oz serving of the drinks has 6 mg of sodium, or less than 1% of the Daily Value.

While promoting its functional water as a “low-calorie drink,” new Assure beverages from Assure Food & Beverage Co., Lawrenceville, Ga., fit the bill as low-sodium drink options as well. The beverages will be available in four flavors by December, with three of the varieties — pomegranate blueberry, raspberry acai and goji lemonade — containing 5 mg of sodium per 8-oz serving, and one variety — peach mango — containing 10 mg per 8-oz serving.

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