Salt just works. No other single food additive can be said to have a use in nearly all prepared dishes. Salt gives and enhances flavor, masks off flavors, stabilizes structure and texture, and preserves. Most important of all, salt nourishes—sodium and chloride, in the right amounts, are essential for sustaining life through roles that include helping to regulate fluid and electrolyte balance, pH, and metabolism. Summed up, you could say, we’re all “salt-seeking creatures,” as are all land-living vertebrates, because we’re drawn to salt continually to replace what we lose on a daily basis. Before the advent of modern geology and industry, salt “was one of the world’s most sought-after commodities,” states Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History, adding that it has “provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions.” More than most, food technologists will also appreciate a quote used in Kurlansky’s book from the ancient Roman statesman Cassiodorus (A.D. 523): “Upon your industry all other products depend, for although there may be someone who does not seek gold, there never yet lived the man who does not desire salt, which makes every food more savory.”
Why then make the effort to reduce salt in foods? The oftrepeated statistic is that average sodium consumption in the United States remains at about 3,400 mg per day, far above the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services recommendation for adults to consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium (about a teaspoon of salt) per day and for subgroups, including African Americans and persons with hypertension or chronic kidney disease, to consume no more than 1,500 mg (a quarter of a teaspoon of salt) per day. These guidelines are largely based on the indication that as sodium intake decreases, so will blood pressure, and, thereby, so will the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. However, the recommendations have come under scrutiny in light of a 2013 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report acknowledging that there is little if any evidence of benefit for intakes below 2,300 mg of sodium per day for the general population. At the root of the debate are data showing that sodium intake below 2,300 mg might actually harm, rather than help, potentially because of compensatory mechanisms the body produces hormonally to maintain proper sodium-water balance. The IOM report has led some scientists to argue that any recommendation below average consumption levels—at 3,400 mg—is premature without additional evidence, and that efforts to lower blood pressure should include other components such as decreasing total caloric intake and increasing dietary potassium (found mainly in fruits and vegetables). Others argue that average sodium intake is still higher than it should be and that population-wide sodium reduction should continue as a health priority.
Notwithstanding ongoing discussions over ideal sodium guidelines and conflicting data, several government, public health, and professional organizations have made it their objective to implement strategies to reduce sodium intake. The World Health Organization (WHO) goal is to reduce sodium intake to less than 2,000 mg by 2025. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also made sodium reduction a “key component” of its initiatives to control blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health. Moreover, the American Heart Association, the New York City Dept. of Health, the American Heart Association, and the American Society of Hypertension each have their own dietary sodium reduction initiatives. Most recently, Hypertension Canada announced that it is raising sodium recommendations to 2,000 mg/day. Previously the organization recommended 1,500 mg per day for those ages 14 to 50, 1,300 mg/day for those ages 51 to 70, and 1,200 mg/day for those ages 70 and older. The new recommendations, in line with those of the WHO, became effective this month.
The IOM’s recommendation as a primary strategy by which to reduce population-wide dietary sodium is to mandate national standards for sodium content in foods and, as an interim strategy, to encourage food manufacturers and restaurant and foodservice operators to voluntarily reduce sodium in processed foods. According to the CDC, Americans consume 77% of dietary sodium from processed foods, prepackaged foods, and restaurant foods, while 6% is added during home cooking, 5% is added at the dinner table, and 12% is naturally occurring in the food itself. As reported previously in Food Technology magazine, food manufacturers have responded to calls for reduced sodium intake by launching a number of no-sodium (less than 5 mg), very low–sodium (less than 35 mg), low-sodium (less than 140 mg), and reduced-sodium (25% less than the regular version) products across several food categories. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, there was an almost 115% increase in the number of products with low-, no-, and reduced-sodium claims from 2005 to 2008. Although, from 2010 to 2011, the number of products launched with these claims decreased 5%, with only 2% of products making the claims in 2011, probably due to poor sales and sodium-reduction challenges or perhaps because food manufacturers are opting for a “stealth health approach” to sodium reduction.
Stealthy Sodium Reduction
Companies are finding a stealth health approach ideal because customers often perceive low-, no-, and reduced-sodium claims as a sacrifice to flavor. A survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), for example, found that only 13% of consumers say they would choose a product with a “low-sodium” claim as compared to other front-of-pack claims or no claims. As David Freedman reports in the July/August issue of The Atlantic in an article titled “How Junk Food Can End Obesity,” companies including McDonald’s have had to learn hard lessons from past product launch failures (such as McLean Deluxe), finding that consumers can be turned off by “healthy” marketing claims. Now McDonald’s and other companies, reports Freedman, have opted to make their offerings healthier—with reductions to sodium, as well as fat and sugar—more quietly so as not to alarm consumers. Last October, speaking at the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics’ Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in Houston, Unilever Senior Nutrition Manager Barbara Ledermann said, “Explicitly claiming x% less salt is not motivating for consumers.” She advocated a stealthy reduction over time, allowing customers to adjust to lower sodium levels in foods.