Salt- and sodium-reduction efforts are well underway across the food industry. Numerous companies have announced such plans; Mars Food U.S. and Kraft Foods both have recently thrown their respective hats into the ring of sodium reduction, with Mars signing on to the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI) and Kraft announcing “support of the NSRI.”

The NSRI is a partnership of cities, states and national health organizations to “guide a voluntary reduction of salt levels in packaged and restaurant foods.” Its goal is to cut the salt in packaged and restaurant foods by 25% over the five years through 2015. Kraft’s announcement indicates its plan will align with NSRI goals for 2012; however, Kraft’s effort reflects an average reduction (of 10%) across its portfolio. Mars will reduce the sodium content of its Uncle Ben’s flavored rice products by 25% over five years. (Other Uncle Ben’s rice and products already meet NSRI targets.) These are only two of a number of manufacturers making such sodium-reduction efforts.

In making such a change in the formulation and ingredients, manufacturers are taking a risk on several levels. Reducing the sodium content of foods will lead to differences in the products’ tastes, in varying degrees. Will the consumer accept such alterations? It has been well-documented that consumer beliefs do not exactly align with consumer behavior (the May 10th issue of PF’s E-dition newsletter includes an NPD study on this). Consumers may well say they want low- or no-sodium foods, but in the long run, will they buy them repeatedly? Even if so, branded products have another, likely even more important factor to consider when reducing salt or any vilified ingredients. (This is not a vindication of such vilifying statements; however, some ingredients have taken the blame--often not necessarily justified--for a host of consumer concerns.)

The consumer may well start to ask, “Wait, why were all these ‘harmful’ ingredients in these products in the first place?” Manufacturers would be well-advised to have an answer for such questions, and it had better be a remarkably compelling one, because it is easy to imagine these same consumers opting for brands that never had such ingredients. If a brand suddenly begins making a healthful pitch, it should be prepared to communicate a viable reason for not having had that healthy positioning in the past; it does not matter what is being eliminated--be it fat, salt, high-fructose corn syrup, whatever. Otherwise, other brands could easily capitalize. pf