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Law professor: Sodium reduction only works if there is a level playing field

By Elaine Watson , 13-Feb-2012
Last updated on 13-Feb-2012 at 15:46 GMT2012-02-13T15:46:03Z

If consumers are not demanding lower-sodium products, and the government does not mandate reductions, the food industry has “no incentive to be at the forefront of change”, according to one legal expert.

Marsha N. Cohen is professor of law at the Hastings College of the Law, University of California, and a member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee that produced the 2010 report ‘Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States’.

Voluntary change in the food industry cannot work

In a comment submitted to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) as part of its probe into sodium reduction approaches , professor Cohen said:

“The work of the National Sodium Reduction Initiative (NSRI) is a good start, but my observation is that relying on voluntary change in the food industry cannot work. Government must become involved.”

I cannot blame industry for backtracking on some sodium reduction work

She added: “It appears that some of the food companies that made changes in products several years ago – when NSRI was getting started and the IOM committee hard at work – have backtracked.

“I cannot blame them for doing so; if their sodium-reduced products were not selling, and their competitors were not engaging in sodium reduction, what choice did they have but to abandon their public-spirited behavior?

“The lack of a level playing field for industry was a concern of the IOM committee, and it must be foremost in the mind of regulators. Without the public demanding reduced-sodium products, and with their competitors’ products unchanged, industry has no incentive to be at the forefront of change.

We must change the ‘food universe’ around us

She concluded: “While I applaud those companies who have tried to engage in ‘stealth reductions’ and to add to their reduced-sodium lines of foods, I cannot see significant impact on this serious public health problem… until there are requirements that everyone in industry must meet.”

While serving on the IOM committee, it became “quite clear to me that sodium reduction will have to happen in a stepwise fashion to get the support of the public as well as to modify our sodium taste”, claimed Cohen.

And that meant sodium reduction across the board from food manufacturers and foodservice companies: “Success in reducing our sodium taste will require changing the food universe around us.

“Merely asking people to reduce their sodium intake cannot work: too many of us are too reliant on prepared and restaurant foods to have much impact just by changing our behavior in our own kitchens.”

Campbell Soup: One size fits all approach doesn’t work

However, most food manufacturers submitting comments to the docket said they favored a voluntary approach.

Campbell Soup, which hit the headlines last year by re-introducing some sodium to a line of soups that had been subject to significant cuts, said a one-size-fits-all approach did not work.

For example, a sodium level of 480mg/serving for condensed tomato soup had been “well accepted by consumers and continues to be successful in the marketplace”, said the firm.

However, reducing sodium to 480mg in another product was not accepted by consumers. “We also re-launched a mainstream product line as Select Harvest soups at a uniform sodium level of 480 mg per serving, without making the healthy sodium level part of our consumer messaging, i.e. maintaining the mainstream product positioning of the line.

“This last move proved to be too aggressive and did not meet the expectations of consumers purchasing soups that are not explicitly positioned as ‘healthy’.

‘Disappointing taste is not something people get used to, they simply make other choices.’

It added: “Sales went down to the point where corrective steps were taken to improve taste, including adding back some salt and other recipe changes.”

Ultimately, said the soup giant, a “one-size-fits-all approach does not work… Disappointing taste is not something people get used to, they simply make other choices.”

Nestlé: Each food matrix is different, even within a product line

In its comment to the docket, Nestlé Nutrition noted: “What we learned during our development is that each food matrix is different even within a product line. Extensive effort was required to reformulate to achieve taste acceptance, and to not increase fat or added sugars.

“Sodium chloride has other technological effects in the food matrices that go beyond saltiness. For example in food systems that are tomato based, salt effects the perceptions of sweetness and souriness. In cheese, sodium works differently as well, affecting texture and mouthfeel.”

Because of this, sodium replacement was rarely a case of a “one for one substitution with potassium chloride or other salt substitutes, nor can you just reduce the amount of salt without rebalancing the other components in the food”, said the firm.

Click here to read comments submitted to the docket.

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