Kraft Foods has made significant cuts in sodium across its portfolio - and is currently working on “proprietary approaches to take this work to the next level” - but there is “not yet a silver bullet in the toolbox”, admit R&D chiefs at the firm.
Russ Moroz, VP Research Development & Quality, was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after Kraft said it was on track to complete a three-year initiative to reduce sodium by an average of 10% across its North American portfolio by the year-end.
The work has already eliminated the equivalent of 14m lbs of salt from the North American diet annually, and includes 40% sodium reductions in Kraft Original BBQ Sauce, 30% reductions in Kraft Easy Mac Cups Original and 18% cuts in Kraft Singles American Slices.
There is not one taste bud or single sodium receptor
So how has this been achieved?
Aside from using the potassium-based sodium replacers and flavor-balancing solutions that are commercially available, Kraft “has found approaches to sodium reduction that are unique and different” - said Moroz, although he won’t say what they are.
R&D bosses have also looked at several new products in the sodium reduction space such as Tate & Lyle’s SodaLo - microscopic hollow salt crystals that can deliver an intense, salty hit on the taste buds but still be listed as ‘salt’ on labels, he said.
“We’re familiar with SodaLo and think it is an interesting approach, but there really is not - yet - a silver bullet in the [sodium reduction] toolbox.”
He added: “You have to take a category-specific approach, so in some areas even reaching a 10% reduction is very challenging whereas in others you can get a 40% reduction.
“All products are challenging, especially where ‘saltiness is a characteristic part of the flavor, with products such as cheese, bacon, and salted snacks; where sodium is an important part of maintaining food safety, in products such as process cheese, ham, BBQ sauces and dressings; or where salt also develops texture, such as process cheese and cold cuts.
“The problem is that there is not one taste bud or single sodium receptor; sodium perception in the mouth works in a completely different way to sweet or other tastes.”
For some consumers, ‘low sodium’ triggers the thought that this will not taste good
Given that reduced sodium is not always a selling point for consumers, decisions about how or whether to communicate reductions must be taken on a case-by-case basis, he added.
“Some products are marketed specifically to people that are aggressively looking for low/reduce sodium products, whereas for other consumers, seeing a message on pack about low sodium frequently triggers the thought that this will not taste good.”
But while this makes building business case for reducing sodium a challenge, the imperative is still there because it is the right thing to do, he said.
“You can’t simply ignore it. We had to draw a line in the sand.”
Asked about the threat of government intervention to force the food industry to meet sodium reduction targets, he said: “I don’t want to speculate on something that may or may not happen but I will say that voluntary steps taken by Kraft Foods and many other food manufacturers have the potential to speed change quickly.”
Open innovation at Kraft
Like many rivals, Kraft has been steadily ramping up its open innovation infrastructure to make it easier for external collaborators to work with its R&D teams and get new products to market more quickly.
Along with General Mills and Unilever, it has also started publishing detailed lists of technical problems it is trying to solve on a new open innovation website at kfcollaborationkitchen.com .
While Kraft has been engaging in open innovation for years, tools and structures that help facilitate communication with outsiders have helped take collaboration to a new level, said Moroz.
“There are definitely ideas and opportunities that have come to us via the website and other tools that probably wouldn’t have reached us before, because people didn’t know where to start, how to approach us.
“But there has also been a real culture change. I think people entering the business today more naturally look outside the business - whereas those of us that have been doing this for 20+ years got used to much more of our efforts coming around internally.”
Kitchen cupboard ingredients
A look at some of the latest challenges Kraft has asked potential partners to solve reveals a strong focus on natural ingredients - or at least ingredients with “kitchen friendly” and not “chemical sounding” names, sodium reduction and weight management.
On the health front, formulators are looking for “foods and ingredients with proven efficacy to improve blood glucose control and maintain muscle mass”; “ingredients that provide sustained energy to enhance ability to perform daily mental and physical tasks” and “lower cost alternatives to standard commodities that provide key micronutrients”.
Click here to read about Tony Vernon’s plans for ‘New Kraft’.
Click here to access Kraft’s open innovation website.
Click here to read more about Kraft’s R&D activities.
Sodium reduction. The science, the technology and the business case...