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Concerted industry effort needed for sodium reduction

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 17-Feb-2011
Last updated on 17-Feb-2011 at 16:52 GMT

In order to cut sodium from American diets food manufacturers must work in unison to reduce sodium in their products – and their efforts have gained momentum, according to major industry players.

It was widely expected that the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans would give a blanket recommendation for maximum daily sodium intake of 1,500mg, revised from 2,300mg, following an Advisory Committee proposal last year. The final advice stopped just short of doing so, leaving the general recommendation at 2,300mg, while suggesting a level of 1,500mg for groups that represent about half of the adult population. However, most Americans were not managing to remain within the previous limit, with average adult intake at about 3,400mg a day.

Considering that an estimated 75 percent of US sodium intake comes from processed foods, manufacturers are feeling the pressure.

McCain Foods’ senior director, Foodservice Potatoes, Don Moos, told FoodNavigator-USA.com that McCain has been working on reducing sodium for more than five years, and it has pledged to gradually reduce sodium in its frozen and refrigerated pizzas by 30 percent over the next three years.

Moos said: “For us it is partly about doing the right thing, but it’s also about responding to the needs of our customers… Flavor is key. Obviously sodium and salt add flavor, so when you take it out you have to be careful to maintain sensory attributes.”

Manufacturers’ moves

Most major food manufacturers now have some kind of sodium reduction strategy, and each new reduction announcement tends to spur others to reduce sodium still further.

General Mills, for example, said in its 2010 corporate social responsibility report that it would reduce sodium by 20 percent in about 600 products; Kraft pledged to reduce the sodium content of its entire North American portfolio by an average of 10 percent over a two-year period; ConAgra set an across the board reduction target in 2009 of 20 percent by 2015; and Unilever also announced a sodium reduction strategy that year.

But Moos said that whatever sodium intake the Dietary Guidelines recommend, consumer behavior is slow to change, and food manufacturers need to be careful to adjust seasoning slowly to avoid upsetting their customers. Therefore, sodium reduction needs to be an industry-wide process.

“Sodium is something that you learn to like. As long as all manufacturers gradually take sodium out of products, people will eventually stop learning to like it…How low can you go? – As low as remains acceptable to consumers. You just have to be cautious, careful, gradual.”

Ingredient innovation

Meanwhile, as manufacturers keep trying to outdo each other in the sodium reduction stakes, ingredients suppliers have been scrambling to create replacement products and other flavor solutions.

Cargill is one of many suppliers to have broadened the range of sodium replacement products it offers in response to the wide range of sodium reduction challenges that manufacturers present.

Marketing manager with Cargill John Franklin agreed that reduction often needs to happen gradually to maintain consumer acceptance.

He said: “[The reduction process] may start with some specific consumer idea as to how much they want to reduce salt. It may take several cycles of reducing salt and tasting with a sensory panel.”

However, Franklin underlined that consumer acceptability is just one side of the equation. Salt also has functional attributes in foods in terms of preservation in meats and cheeses, for example, or for modifying the action of leavening agents in baked goods.

“Food manufacturers often use potassium chloride as the first ‘go to’ ingredient particularly when sodium is in, rather than on, a product,” he said.

The company introduced a blended potassium chloride/sodium chloride product late last year to help address this need to retain some of sodium’s functionality in many products while also reducing sodium content. And there is a wide range of other strategies available, particularly for topical applications, such as on snack products.

“Sodium reduction doesn’t necessarily mean reducing salt,” Franklin said.

Cargill has tweaked the salt crystal itself, offering crystals with a larger surface area so that perception of saltiness remains, while less sodium is consumed. Similarly, smaller salt crystals allow manufacturers to use less, while retaining salty flavor, he said.

“I don’t know if there is an end point, or only so far as you can go. But salt is important from a food safety perspective too,” he said. “…We need to get to some big cuts in sodium while retaining flavor. We continue to work on it, as do food manufacturers.”

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