Why Food Companies Are Cutting Salt

Some healthy, sodium-slashing competition has broken out among food companies, and consumers are the ones benefiting. Last week, Kraft Foods Inc. announced it would cut the salt in its North American line by an average of 10 percent in over 1000 products over the next two years. On Monday, PepsiCo unveiled a global nutrition initiative to reduce sodium in food products by an average of 25 percent by 2015. The company also has a 10-year plan to decrease added sugar in beverages by 25 percent and saturated fat in foods by 15 percent. Other companies, such as ConAgra, Sara Lee, and Campbell Soup, already have plans underway to reduce salt in key product categories.

Bravo! I applaud these industry leaders for voluntarily taking a step in the right direction. Regardless of the companies’ motives—I’m not delusional, I realize these moves are probably in response to customer demand, government pressure, and potential for market expansion—I welcome all health changes to the food industry.

Doritos, Easy Mac, and SpaghettiO’s will never be classified as health food in my book, and obviously I much prefer that people get the majority of their calories from whole, natural foods. But the realist in me says processed foods are a part of our modern lifestyle and here to stay, so a gradual yet consistent trend among food companies to take out more of the “bad stuff”—first trans fats, now salt, and in the future perhaps more sugar, refined flour, and artery-clogging saturated fat—is a definite improvement.

For heavy consumers of packaged foods, these changes could have a considerable impact on heart and overall health (for more information on the health risks associated with a high-salt diet, read my blog: Hold the Salt). Kraft’s initiative alone is projected to eliminate more than 10 million pounds of salt from the food supply over the next two years. When you factor in all the other multinational companies making similar reductions, that adds up to a significant, population-wide decrease in salt intake (assuming consumers don’t make up for the sodium deficit in other places!).

Companies are using their full arsenal of tricks—even a few new ones—to make better-for-you snacks and foods that still satisfy America’s spoiled taste buds. PepsiCo has developed a new “designer salt” with a unique crystal shape that delivers more bang for the buck, so consumers get a saltier sensation from less salt. The company specifically created the ingredient to lower the sodium content of their original Lay’s potato chips, but hopes to integrate it into other products across their brand portfolio. Other food manufacturers are replacing some of the traditional salt—sodium chloride—in their products with salt substitutes like potassium chloride. This allows companies to season food while using less sodium, the component of salt responsible for raising blood pressure.

Of course, when food manufacturers eliminate key flavoring agents like salt, sugar, and fat, you have to wonder what they’ll be adding back in to preserve taste. Dave DeCecco, spokesperson for PepsiCo, says the company is moving towards shorter, cleaner ingredient lists, so they’re relying on clever flavorings like their new couture salt and other natural seasonings to deliver great taste without using boatloads of additives and fillers. Rest assured, companies will do plenty of consumer testing to make sure their improved generation of products still meets customers’ taste expectations—after all, your loyalty and their bottom line are at stake.

All of this product innovation and reformulation costs money. For instance, PepsiCo has increased its research and development budget by more than 40% over the past 3 years, partially to fund the creation of healthier products. But most companies say they don’t expect these expenses to be passed on to consumers, which is good news for shoppers (and eaters!).

As pressure mounds to create healthier products, the packaged food world may be turning a corner. I personally await the new-and-improved version of caramel flavored Crunch ‘n Munch.

Posted in Health & Beauty.

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