NEW ORLEANS — Cutbacks in sodium, sugar and fat as food ingredients have been widely pursued by food manufacturers in recent years, but the approach taken for reductions of each ingredient vary widely, said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel.
Ms. Dornblaser participated in a June 23 presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and food exposition at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. Her presentation, titled “How consumers manage their health,” was part of a larger panel discussion titled “Healthy reduction: Perspectives on improving nutrition in prepared foods by reducing or replacing targeted ingredients.”
Overall, health claims on food products edged upward in 2013 after slipping in earlier years, Ms. Dornblaser said.
U.S. (and foreign) consumers are most concerned about sodium or sugar reduction, but product health claims are mostly about reduced fat, Ms. Dornblaser said. Roughly 4.5% of products have reduced/low sugar or reduced/low sodium claims, but almost 9% have reduced or low fat claims, she said.
Over the course of her presentation, Ms. Dornblaser made it clear that this seeming mismatch between what consumers want and what food companies are doing reflects the specific challenges of drawing attention to reductions of sodium or sugar in food products.
Reductions in sodium content are more likely to be done covertly, Ms. Dornblaser said.
“By contrast, there is no negative in talking about a product with a low fat formulation,” she said. “Fat free Greek yogurt is very standard in the market. A classic approach is Lean Cuisine from Nestle. We see hundreds and hundreds of low fat products on the market. “
A growing approach for companies highlighting fat reduction is on products in which relative fat content is highlighted, e.g., 20% less fat than traditional snack chips.
In the case of sodium, when food companies make overt reductions, the approaches vary widely. For example, Ms. Dornblaser said Terra chips have no salt added and contain 10 mg per serving. Similarly low figures were noted for Fit & Active diced tomatoes, and Ms. Dornblaser noted that the line is offered at Aldi, a “hard discounter.” By contrast, the sodium reduction in Kitchen Accomplice broth may be significant at 20% but still leaves 480 mg per serving.
Careful messaging often accompanies sodium reduction, Ms. Dornblaser said, pointing to the Maggi broth from Nestle, which promotes, “less salt and more herbs.”
“Consumer fear that when products have less sodium, they will have less taste,” she said. Other products are described as “lightly salted,” as a softened approach to sodium reduction.
In the case of reduced sugar, wording often is confusing, Ms. Dornblaser said. While there is pressure to make a distinction between added sugar and sugar inherent in the product, nutritionists acknowledge there is no known difference between the two when it comes to a physiological impact, and consumers generally don’t yet seem to care about the distinction.
Offering three examples of sugar reduction, Ms. Dornblaser showed a snack cake from Hostess with 25% less sugar, a juice with reduced sugar in an effort to make it more suitable for children and Kraft Philadelphia chocolate cream cheese promoted as having 40% less sugar than its spread competitor — Nutella.
Claims associated with reduced sugar often are coupled with positive nutritional statements, such as the calcium or whole grain content of the food product, she said.
When it comes to covert reduction, sodium dominates, Ms. Dornblaser said. She offered a few examples of companies gradually lowering sodium content while remaining mute on the subject.
For instance, Cheerios contained 210 mg of sodium per serving in 2004, 190 in 2007 and 160 in 2013. In 2014, sodium has been lowered further — to 140 mg.
Sodium content of Kraft singles have come down in recent years to 220 mg per serving from 270 with, again, no attention from the company.
“We did not see as pronounced a trend in sugar reduction,” Ms. Dornblaser said. “The take away message is that flavor comes first and health attributes second. Food companies must keep that in mind.“Also consumers aren’t afraid of sugar and salt. They’re just afraid of too much sugar and salt.”