The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds 90% of Americans exceed the recommended daily amount of sodium. Only 9.6% of the total population consumed the recommended amount, with only 5.5% of at-risk groups consuming the 1,500mg suggestion.

To counter this, numerous companies have announced plans for cutting the sodium levels in their products. Campbell has reformulated 85 of its 200+ soups to contain less salt and has introduced lower-sodium Pepperidge Farm bread. Frito-Lay and ConAgra, likewise, have slashed the sodium levels in their respective potato chip and popcorn products, and Kraft has announced plans to reduce the sodium content of its entire North American portfolio by an average of 10% over the next two years. ConAgra is aiming for a line-wide sodium reduction of 20% by 2015, while Unilever’s efforts are somewhat more complicated: it wants to reduce the sodium levels in its line down to the World Health Organization maximum salt recommendations of 5g (roughly 2000mg of sodium) a day by 2015.

That is the same year General Mills has set for its own 20% sodium reduction in about 40% of its product line, which equates to roughly 600 products. The company notes it has already made effective, though non-promoted strides in this area, notching a 16% sodium reduction Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios, a 25% dip in some of its Progresso soups, and a 36% cut in its Chex snack mix portfolio.

Clearly, the move to lower-sodium is an industry-wide phenomenon and is by no means exclusive to packaged food manufacturers. Burger King initiated sodium-limiting in its children’s meals two years ago, establishing a threshold of 600mg in all of its meals marketed to children under the age of 12.

In introducing its range of lower-sodium deli meats, Sara Lee noted the launch was “in response to competitors’ efforts in recent years to cut back on salt,” including such low-sodium brands as Butterball and Boar’s Head. Sara Lee’s lower-sodium takes on oven-roasted turkey, chicken breast and honey ham purportedly have 40%, 42% and 36% less sodium, respectively, than the USDA standard for similar non-reduced deli products. Internal Sara Lee research discovered 52% of women and 40% of men expressed interest in lower-sodium versions of the foods they buy.  

Far beyond any of these manufacturers’ announced efforts, one campaign’s goal is to reduce the amount of salt in all of these foods by 25% over the next five years. It is just one example of locales taking a proactive approach to reducing their citizens’ sodium consumption. New York City is one of a partnership of cities and national health organizations promoting a “voluntary program of salt reduction in packaged and restaurant foods.” The effort would curb the nation’s estimated salt consumption by 20% and, it claims, prevent up to 800,000 premature deaths per year nationwide. The National Salt Reduction Initiative aims to reduce the salt levels in 61 categories of packaged food and 25 classes of restaurant food.

A similar effort in Canada is working on sodium-reduction targets likely to be published this month, but they are expected to reduce the average Canadian’s daily sodium consumption 5% a year, to 2,300mg a day by 2016. A similar tactic in the U.K. has resulted in an estimated 9.5% reduction in sodium consumption.

Per USDA estimates, the average American consumes roughly 4,000mg of sodium per day, far surpassing the recommended daily maximum of 2,300mg. (Even that number is too much for certain Americans, noted the CDC, which says nearly 70% of the population, including those with high blood pressure, African-Americans and anyone middle-aged or older, should consume no more than 1,500mg of sodium daily.) High intakes of sodium have been linked to a greater risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. However, relatively little of that sodium comes from the saltshaker. The CDC estimates 77% of the sodium in the average American diet comes from packaged foods.

So, how are manufacturers coping with such salt-reduction initiatives? In the U.K., one supplier has introduced microscopic salt crystals which reportedly cut salt by more than half (from 1.8% down to 0.7%). While grinding the salt into smaller particles led only to their becoming more hygroscopic, the supplier instead engineered a solution that alters the salt crystal structure, to create free-flowing microscopic hollow balls. The end result has an 18-month shelflife. At 5-10 microns, the microscopic salt crystals are dwarfed by the 200-500-micron-sized standard salt, but they deliver an intense salty taste. Manufacturers are testing the product in bread, potato chips, sauces and certain meats and are expected to test the concept in soups and bakery mixes soon. Water-soluble and oil-soluble varieties are available, and the supplier notes it can be labeled as salt. Another salt replacer recently used comes from fermented wheat germ, and the supplier notes trials in baked goods found no dramatic effect on texture or other characteristics.  

With all of this industry effort, public awareness efforts and health concerns, American consumers would seem to be up in arms about sodium consumption. However, consumers are a bit less concerned about sodium levels than other aspects of their diet, says a Packaged Facts report. Instead, the consumers tend to prioritize eating more fruits and vegetables, adding fiber to their diet, or avoiding saturated fat, sugar and trans fat, ahead of sodium-reduced foods.

Other Resources
* Low-/No-sodium Emerging
* NYC Wants Sodium Reduction
* Phosphates Aid Sodium Reduction
* Sodium Sapping at Kraft and Pepsi
* Reducing Sodium, A Matter of Taste
* Salt is Salt
* Canada Dietary Sodium Initiative website

From the July 19, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition