Nearly two-thirds of the population is still trying to cut down on or avoid sodium completely in their diets, but that percentage declined from 68% in 2010 to 64% in 2013. Moreover, 39% of adults looked for sodium content on the nutrition labels, down from 41% in 2010, according to NPD.
The market researcher also found that over the next five years use of foods with special label codes like low sodium/salt free, low/reduced, fat/no fat, or whole grain/made with whole grain is expected to decline across every generational group except Gen Z, ages 0-23, who are still learning about foods and nutrition. And by 2018, the percent of annual consumption of foods with a low-sodium or no-salt label is expected to decline 1% from 2013.
But even as sodium has receded a bit in the consumer mindset, these percentages are still impressive, NPD Group food and beverage analyst Darren Seifer told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Sodium is still there—maybe it’s not at the forefront of consumers’ minds—but we can’t ignore 64%. It’s definitely translates to a conscious thing,” Seifer said. “We’ve seen it trickle down a point here and there from a few years back, and maybe it’s not gaining in momentum, but consumers are aware that sodium is something they should be actively avoiding.”
Covert reduction reflecting changes in intake over time?
The debate over sodium’s link to numerous chronic illnesses—among them heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure—is not new. Nor is the fact that many US consumers regularly eat above the government recommended daily sodium intake of 2300 milligrams for the average person and 1500 milligrams for ages 50+.
It’s not surprising, given that today’s US food supply has roughly 35% more sodium per person than it did in the early 1900s due to the availability of more processed foods, as the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion found in 2002 (see the report here).
But in the FDA’s recently updated Total Diet Study—which tested the levels of various nutrients and contaminants in approximately 280 commonly consumed processed food and beverage between 2006 and 2011—the agency found statistically significant declines in sodium contents of several processed foods, which could signify that manufacturers are slowly scaling back on sodium (perhaps without overtly telling consumers in the process).
“Covert reduction in sodium is something that probably mirrors the way consumers change their intake over time,” Seifer noted. “If you look at changes in food and beverage intake, they don’t happen very quickly. I often equate them to plate tectonics: very slow and gradual, it is changing but you have to look at it closely or over a long period of time.”
Even the 2010 Institute of Medicine report on strategies for sodium reduction—which was the basis for the FDA’s plan to issue voluntary guidelines—called for a “gradual stepwise reduction in salt that would make the changes imperceptible to consumers’ palates”—as drastic changes would likely be unpopular.
“Salt is an important ingredient in making foods taste good,” Seifer added. “If manufacturers radically reduced the sodium in their products all at once, it would drastically change the flavor profile and be met with consumer rejection. Covert reduction is allowing the consumer to adapt to lower sodium levels without knowing it.”