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Dispatches from the ADA 2011 conference

IFIC: We need to change the conversation on sodium reduction

By Elaine Watson , 28-Sep-2011
Last updated on 28-Sep-2011 at 16:34 GMT

The fact that most Americans still don’t know how much sodium they should eat, are unaware of how much they actually eat, or simply aren’t bothered either way, suggests communication strategies need an overhaul if the sodium reduction message is to get across, says the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

Presenting the results of a new IFIC consumer survey on sodium at the American Dietetic Association (ADA) annual conference in San Diego yesterday, IFIC manager, nutrients, Kris Sollid said consumers clearly struggled with numbers in relation to sodium.

Given that a straw poll of the dieticians in the audience also revealed that virtually none could accurately estimate how much sodium they typically consumed, there was little hope for the average consumer, who in any case was not diligently adding up sodium, milligram by milligram, when doing the weekly shop, he said.

“Consumers are hearing messages about lowering their sodium, but specific numbers and thresholds do not appear to be sticking.”

Front-of-pack nutrition labeling

Consumers also struggled to work out what was high, low or acceptable when it came to sodium on any given food given low awareness about overall targets and the impracticality of keeping score of sodium milligrams.

His comments also raised questions about the value of the new Nutrition Keys ‘Facts about Food’ front-of-pack labeling scheme, which deliberately doesn’t rank foods as high, low or moderate for any given nutrient but instead presents consumers with an array of numbers and lets them make up their own minds.

When asked how many milligrams of sodium per serving would be in a low or a high sodium product, consumers were completely clueless, he added.

But slapping ‘low sodium’ messages on pack to highlight reformulation efforts was also risky for manufacturers as many consumers were suspicious of low-sodium foods ( they might not taste as good), or were not actively trying to reduce sodium intakes in the first place, he said.

“However, Americans do understand positive messages that involve foods versus just nutrients – like ‘eat more fruits and vegetables’ — as a good way to lower sodium and increase potassium intakes. Perhaps it’s time for our messages about sodium to focus more on behaviors and evolve to move beyond the numbers?”

Why aren’t more consumers trying to cut down?

More than half (58%) of the 1,003 US adults surveyed by IFIC were not trying to limit sodium because they felt they were already in good overall health (44%), had concerns about taste (36%), or were simply not convinced there was a need to cut down (31%), he said.

Moreover, those who were trying to cut down typically focused efforts on using less salt while cooking or removing the salt shaker once food was prepared rather than analyzing sodium content in packaged foods, he said.

Between a rock and a hard place

So where does this leave manufacturers that want to do the right thing without alienating their customers?

In quite a difficult place, acknowledged Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) analyst, science policy, nutrition and health, Sarah Levy, who spoke after Sollid at the ADA conference.

While most responsible firms had already spent considerable time and money on sodium reduction without compromising safety, quality or taste, shouting about this on pack did not always pay off, noted Levy, while technical hurdles also made large reductions very challenging in categories such as bread.

“Consumers have reacted negatively to many low sodium products so many companies have been silently reducing sodium.”

Are sodium targets in kids marketing proposals too strict?

Meanwhile, a recent government proposal setting nutrition standards for foods marketed to kids had postulated sodium levels so low that they would prevent manufacturers from marketing a raft of healthy foods to kids, including most yogurts, soups, vegetable juices and many cereals, claimed Levy.

Click here to see the results of the FoodNavigator-USA poll on reformulation by stealth.

Click here to see the top line data from the IFIC sodium survey.

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