Roughly 75-80% of U.S. sodium consumption comes from processed foods; however, developers are not maliciously adding sodium to these items. Rather, a basic development process drives the relatively high sodium levels in food.

Data presented by Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D., Monell Chemical Senses Institute, shows an innate preference for salty, sweet and umami tastes--biological indicators of the presence of necessary nutrients. Different populations of consumers have very disparate preferences for salty taste. One example is the inverse relationship between salty taste acceptance and birth weight, a relationship that persists after five years. Also, if consumers are acclimated to higher salt levels, they preferred higher salt levels. If they are accustomed to lower salt levels, lower salt levels are preferred. However, if people who prefer high salt levels are subjected to a lower salt regime for six weeks or more, their preferred salt level shifts downward. Since formulators add sodium with the objective of maximizing liking for a product, the innate preference for salt drives the use of higher levels of sodium.

So, What is a Product Developer to Do?
Often, manufacturers seek to reduce sodium by a “claimable” amount, such as 25% or more, while maintaining equal or better liking of the current product. Once the change is made, it is flagged on the package to alert consumers. This type of project can be difficult to accomplish.

Companies may be better served by taking an incremental approach, without highlighting the change to consumers. If one applies the Monell data, gradually reducing sodium content may shift consumer salt preferences downward. These gradual reductions would be slightly less than the amount that would drive a “just noticeable difference.” For example, a product’s sodium content would be reduced 10% annually over a five-year period.

For each reduction, the new product is compared to the previous year’s product, rather than the original gold standard. This is a version of “Quality Creep,” which, in this case, is warranted.

Monell data also suggests that members of a sodium-reduction team be chosen with considerations for their salt level preferences and ability to perceive bitter tastes. A team might be composed of someone known to prefer a high level of salt, someone who prefers lower levels and someone very sensitive to bitterness.