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The uncomfortable truth about Campbell's salt u-turn

7 commentsBy Elaine Watson , 18-Jul-2011
Last updated on 02-Feb-2012 at 21:52 GMT

It’s enraged dieticians and delighted the Salt Institute. But Campbell Soup’s high-profile u-turn on sodium raises some difficult questions about reformulation for all stakeholders.

In case you missed the howls of outrage that immediately followed, after an “unsparing analysis” of “strategies that are working and not working”, Campbell has resolved to boldly go back - to almost where it was before - and add some salt back into its Select Harvest soups.

Predictably, dieticians are not happy and lobby groups have accused bosses of taking the easy way out.

After all, points out the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there are plenty of ways to compensate for reduced sodium, from salt replacers and enhancers to extra herbs, spices, veg or other ingredients, provided you are prepared to pay for them.

Where the business case?

But is Campbell really sacrificing consumers’ health to preserve its bottom line, or is it just saying publically what many firms are saying privately, that while we say we want products with less fat, salt and sugar, we don’t always put our money where our mouth is?

As Paul Newberry, co-founder of UK-based fruit snack maker Stream Foods pointed out at a conference run by our sister title FoodManufacture.co.uk last year, coming up with products that impress angry dieticians is one thing, getting consumers to buy them is another.

“At one time, I was seduced by nutritionists saying I should be doing this or that and I launched 100% fruit desserts with vitamin C. They got into Sainsbury and Tesco, and they met all the nutritional criteria, but nobody bought them and they were delisted. I lost £200,000 but it taught me a lesson: my job is to make products that sell."

And as Campbell's incumbent chief executive Denise Morrison made very clear in her frank analysis of the soup market last week, sodium reduction is not a killer USP for many consumers, whether we like it or not.

Reformulation by stealth

Indeed, many firms have chosen to conduct their costly and technically challenging sodium reduction work ‘by stealth’ rather than shouting about it on pack precisely because telling consumers what they are up to does not sell more products, and may even have the opposite effect.

Firms trying to reduce saturated fat face similar problems, with claims to this effect proving a selling point for consumers on some products, but by no means on all.

The bottom line is that cutting salt, fat and sugar is expensive and difficult, and while manufacturers are facing intense pressure from politicians, health lobbyists and NGOs to get on with it, making a business case, particularly on high-volume, low margin products, is not easy.

Healthy flak

Another aspect to this debate that is often overlooked is that some companies are doing a lot (no one can accuse Campbell for not trying) and others are doing nothing – because they can.

Big brands get all the flak – perhaps rightly so – while many smaller players slip under the radar and continue to produce eye-wateringly salty, fatty and sugary wares without a whiff of bad publicity.

However, the roll out of front-of-pack labelling – which will highlight products’ sodium, saturated fat and added sugar content – will go some way to address this issue by helping consumers make comparisons between products, although the precise scope of these labels is the subject of heated debate.

Chickens, eggs and compromise

So where does all this leave us? And was Campbell right to reach for the salt shaker?

I’ll give the last word to Lori Colman of marketing agency Colman Brohan Davis, who takes a pragmatic view.

Packaged foods have been so laden with sodium for so long that consumers believe that’s what food tastes like … and when there isn’t as much sodium, they complain that food is bland. CPG companies have essentially ‘hooked’ people on the flavor and now use ‘people want flavor’ as a reason to keep it going.

“So, I get it [Campbell’s decision]. But I also think that an iconic brand like Campbell’s has missed a real leadership opportunity in consumer education. What if instead of delivering a massive dose of sodium to all, they could have added sodium education on the label? ‘Add ¼ tsp salt if you like your soup more salty. The maximum recommended level of sodium intake is 2300 mg per day. 1/4 tsp salt = 500 mg sodium..'

“Taking personal responsibility for your sodium intake is really hard because of our desire for convenience. But everyone can reach for the salt shaker.”

Elaine Watson is a correspondent on FoodNavigator-USA.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. An award-winning journalist, Elaine has been writing about the food industry for more than 10 years for a range of print and online trade publications including The Grocer, Food Manufacture and Food Ingredients, Health & Nutrition.

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7 comments (Comments are now closed)

Much Ado about nothing

The human body tightly controls the level of salt. The only way I have found to reduce salt that set point is to lower the intake to nothing for 3 weeks, then start over. The general public is not going to take any such action based on today's knowledge.

Someone mentioned that the public has been trained to enjoy the taste of salt. I agree, but the reason they have been trained that way is the food is otherwise lacking in taste. My latest trial was a national brand of chicken. Slices carefully taken from inside the meat after frying was completely tasteless. This is why companies like Campbell must add salt and/or other flavorings.

If we went back to growing real food, the taste would come back without the need for salt. Till then it is my opinion that if any company drops the salt levels, the customers will stay away in droves.

Buy the way, there are no cans of soup on my shelves either (Except for the ones I personally canned using local produce). I can not take the MSG.

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Posted by Jerry Segers
29 July 2011 | 22h03

Everyone should Applaud the Effort

At least applaud the effort everyone. Doug Conant lost his job over the effort and they at least tried. It probably cost them a fortune, but maybe someone else can learn from their mistake in their Business School class (as I'm sure it will be a HBR case study) and go about it the right way next time.

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Posted by Dave
27 July 2011 | 20h03

EACH TO HIS OWN

I like the idea here of Salt/Sodium Education and advising that if one prefers more (sea)salt, they should add it themselves. I think this meets both fronts of the overly salt/sodium-burdened consumer and the frankly ostracized manufacturer who must straddled a pointed fence of what to do- after all, it is the bottom line that tells the tale. I applaud Campbell's- it was a tough decision and while adding back unrefined sea salt might be a better alternative than just dead table salt, they have shareholders to keep happy, too. Everything in moderation and the more natural - the better.

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Posted by Linda Szymanski
21 July 2011 | 17h17

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