Sodium reduction strategies

by Allison Gibeson
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Some consumer segments are avoiding food categories they believe to be high in sodium, but they also have a general unwillingness to compromise on taste and are not always motivated by health reasons to purchase low-sodium products. All this means manufacturers have extensive work to do to understand the market for reduced sodium products and capitalize on the opportunities it may offer.

According to a recent study from Mintel International, Chicago, 57% of respondents said they limit their use of packaged foods because they are perceived to be high in sodium, suggesting food manufacturers in some product categories need to develop more low-sodium snack and packaged meal options. Mintel suggests offering samples in retail stores of low-sodium products will help in promoting such products and demonstrating their taste as nearly half of respondents said they don’t believe low-sodium alternatives offer the same taste.

A 2010 study by HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla., found 65% of consumers have some degree of concern about sodium intake and 44% regularly watch their sodium intake. But only 29% of shoppers monitor sodium intake by looking at each individual food they eat with most just avoiding certain foods they perceive as “high-sodium” foods. The most commonly avoided foods for sodium reasons were french fries and hamburgers from fast-food restaurants, frozen meals, savory snacks, cured/processed meats, canned soups and chicken from a fast-food restaurant.

The HealthFocus study found that 44% of consumers gave medical reasons, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart or kidney disease, as reasons for seeking reduced-sodium products. Twenty-six per cent of consumers cited bloating and water-weight gain as other reasons for avoiding high-sodium foods. When it comes to women, 35% are concerned about sodium because of bloating compared with 37% who are concerned due to health reasons.

Barbara Katz, president of HealthFocus, said younger shoppers ages 18 to 29 are not opposed to buying lower sodium food, and the majority are likely to find products labeled as low-sodium desirable. She said the problem is getting younger consumers motivated to act, and doing that requires educating and motivating them in a way that resonates.

Younger consumers are more likely to be concerned about sodium intake because it causes bloating rather than because they have high blood pressure, but many also may have family members dealing with high blood pressure. Effective marketing strategies for this age group may be based on appearance and energy or a scenario that shows younger consumers taking care of a loved one, Ms. Katz said.

Undoubtedly the biggest challenge is matching taste in a product with reduced sodium.

“A lot of people have indicated they would buy more soup if it were lower in sodium … our products are products people have been enjoying for their entire lives, so you are matching a memory,” said Juli Mandel Sloves, senior manager of nutrition and wellness communications for Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J. “People don’t want us to make changes to products they have known and loved since childhood.”

During the past five years Campbell has been able to reduce sodium in products by using a sea salt. New formulations use the sea salt and different blends of herbs and spices to boost taste. The company’s Pepperidge Farm bread also uses sea salt to reduce sodium. Mintel’s study indicated

consumers do seem to have a preference for sea salt in terms of ways to reduce sodium.

Ms. Mandel Sloves said Campbell has reduced the sodium in V8 and Prego sauces by literally cutting the sodium content and increasing herb and spice profiles. But what works for one product may not work for another, she said.

Bringing a reduced-sodium product to market also requires extensive effort. Last year Campbell brought their top-selling tomato soup to market at 32% less sodium. Developers worked on it for close to two years and it was taste-tested in all 50 states before the introduction.

Susan Davison, a spokesperson for Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods Inc., said Kraft’s sodium reduction methods include lowering salt on top of crackers or in the dough or both. The company also is looking at new technologies such as leavening ingredients.

While companies are reducing sodium, not all are drawing attention to every product that has gone through a reduction. Ms. Mandel Sloves said while Campbell has reduced sodium in all V8 juices, only the two specific low-sodium varieties are highlighted as such on the label. Additionally, not all Prego products that have been reduced are specifically labeled that way.

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