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Food makers' challenge: Reduce salt, but keep taste

The nation's largest food producers are facing pressure to reduce sodium because of the health risks it poses, but most Americans don't want to sacrifice taste for health.

Salt: Americans love it, health experts fear it and foodmakers are caught in the middle.

The nation’s largest food producers are facing mounting calls from health advocates, Wal-Mart and even first lady Michelle Obama to reduce sodium in the processed foods that account for the vast majority of our salt intake.

The catch? Many Americans are so wary that “low salt” will really mean “less flavor” that some companies are hesitant to even tell consumers when they make a reduction.

“Many consumers are not willing to trade off taste for lower sodium,” said Jane Anders, vice president of research and development with Omaha-based ConAgra, the company behind food brands such as Healthy Choice, Banquet and Slim Jim.  “So the challenge is, how do we get the same great taste or an equally (good) taste with lower sodium?”

Taste is not the only reason major food makers say reducing sodium in prepackaged foods is so difficult. Sodium has become a key ingredient in bread, cheese, frozen dinners, lunch meats and even instant pudding because it’s extremely cheap and good at both enhancing and masking flavors. It also plays an important role in the food production process, contributing to   everything from preserving meats to giving bread its yummy texture.

But too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure and lead to an increased risk of heart disease, strokes and other ailments. The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, last year called on food producers to voluntarily reduce salt while also recommending more aggressive government standards. The report said reducing sodium in American diets could prevent more than 100,000 deaths a year.

Q&A: Go ahead, shake it? We may be wrong about salt

The government’s latest dietary guidelines encourage Americans to reduce sodium intake from an average of about 3,400 milligrams a day to 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams per day. As part of her campaign against childhood obesity, Michelle Obama has urged processors to step up efforts to reduce salt, sugar and fat in foods targeted at kids.

Despite the outcry, most Americans don’t seem too concerned about salt. About four in 10 say they regularly watch their sodium intake, according to a survey done last year by research firm HealthFocus International. Even fewer actively avoid high-sodium food items such as frozen meals and salty snacks, according to the report.

That puts companies working to reduce sodium in a tough position. Andrea Thomas, senior vice president for sustainability for retailing giant Wal-Mart, said the company knows that many  customers can’t pay more for food that has been reformulated to reduce sodium, and they don’t want to eat food that tastes bad. 

Image: Man cuts Marie Callender's meal
ConAgra Cullinary Technician Bruce Blay expertly dices up a Marie Callender's Meatloaf and Gravy, fresh from one of dozens of microwaves in ConAgra test kichen at their world headquarters in Omaha, Neb on May 15, 2011. ConAgra is reducing the amount of sodium in some of their frozen meals and the meals are served to employees as part of the development and testing process.Jim Seida /

“In all the research we’ve done with our customers, they’re interested in eating healthier if they don’t have to sacrifice taste. If something tastes terrible, then it’s much harder to make that shift,” Thomas said.

Food producers including ConAgra, Kraft, General Mills and Campbell’s have said they are dedicated to reducing sodium in their product lines. Earlier this year they were given another push when Wal-Mart set a goal of reducing sodium in many categories of packaged food by 25 percent by 2015, as part of a broader health initiative.

Video: Food giant ConAgra sets sights on sodium

Wal-Mart plans to achieve that in part by reducing sodium in its store-branded Great Value products and in part by asking food suppliers — many of whom count the grocery giant as a key customer — to report on their salt-reduction efforts.

Thomas said there is a business case for reducing sodium and other unhealthy ingredients in foods, beyond just appealing to salt-conscious consumers. If Americans would eat healthier that would lower health care costs associated with things like high blood pressure and heart disease. Such a change would not only reduce health care costs for Wal-Mart — which has 1.2 million U.S. employees — but also would leave customers with more money to spend at the company’s stores.

“It’s a business opportunity,” she said.

Less salt, but not much less flavor
The pressure to reduce sodium and please customers — at a reasonable cost — has left food producers scrambling for other ways to give consumers a zingy taste.

ConAgra’s proprietary Micron Salt, found in its Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, uses a smaller particle to get more salt flavor with less actual salt.

Cargill, a major supplier to the food and agriculture industries, has developed several salt alternatives as well as its Alberger brand salt, a hollow, pyramid-shaped salt flake that gives a salty flavor with less sodium.

Some companies are discovering that they can just quietly cut out some salt. ConAgra — whose other brands include Marie Callender’s, Hebrew National and Chef Boyardee — has reduced the sodium in its Hunt’s diced tomatoes by 10 percent a year since 2008, and plans a 20 percent reduction this year. The hope is that the customer won’t really notice the gradual change.

Other reformulations are more complex. This summer, consumers will start getting new versions of Marie Callender’s turkey, meat loaf and country fried chicken entrees that boast a different side dish and more prominently display the product’s calorie count. What they won’t advertise — but will feature — is a sodium reduction of more than 20 percent from levels of five years ago.

For the country fried chicken dinner, the company replaced regular sodium in the mashed potatoes with a smaller amount of sea salt and removed a cheese topping. The vegetable side dish features a lower sodium garlic and chive sauce.

Still, even with the sodium reduction, the frozen meal will still contain nearly half of a person’s recommended daily sodium intake.

Brand director Jenn Freeman said the primary customer of the Marie Callender’s line — a nurturing woman in her 40s or 50s who wants to provide her family with good food — isn’t looking too hard at the sodium level.

“She looks for taste and convenience first,” Freeman said.

ConAgra also offers premade meals with much lower sodium and calorie counts, such as its Healthy Choice line. But the company also is working to reduce sodium in its more indulgent Marie Callender’s and Banquet foods, which are big sellers, to help achieve its overall goal of reducing sodium content by 20 percent by 2015.

Reformulation carries risks
One of the challenges reformulating a beloved food product carries is that salt costs so little that replacing it with virtually anything else is going to increase the cost.

“The only thing that’s cheaper is probably water and air,” said Janice Johnson, a technical service food applications leader with Cargill.

Freeman, the Marie Callender’s brand manager, said the company has found ways to compensate for the higher costs of sea salt and salt substitutes by cutting expenses somewhere else, such as advertising.

There are other challenges as well. Sea salt can lead to a less consistent flavor, while salt substitutes can frighten consumers away.

“We don’t want to put scary chemicals on the label,” said Anders, of ConAgra.

Reducing salt becomes even trickier with products such as cheese. Nigel Kirtley, vice president of research, development and quality for cheese at Kraft Foods, said salt is used in products such as cheddar cheese for reducing moisture and forming the cheese into a block shape.

Kirtley said Kraft has been able to reduce sodium substantially in some familiar dairy products, like cottage cheese, but he also sees great potential in creating new products that are lower in sodium.

Who’s responsible?
Mark Andon, ConAgra’s vice president for nutrition, said he believes salt is a health concern, but not the most important one. He thinks the best thing Americans could do is to improve health is to simply eat less.

“I think the food industry does have a responsibility to make the foods that we make more nutritious. At the end of the day, though, I think the consumer also has a lot of responsibility to be aware of health issues (and) what they can do,” Andon said.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, agrees that consumers need to take some responsibility. But he argues that that lowering your sodium intake substantially is nearly impossible to do if – like many Americans – you are largely eating food that a company has prepared for you.

“This is a major public health problem and it needs a public health solution, and that’s to lower levels in the food that people buy, rather than expecting a large percentage of the population to read labels,” Jacobson said.