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PepsiCo aims to chip away at sodium content with Crystal Salt

Crystal salt and Lay's potato chips at PepsiCo Headquarters in Purchase, N.Y.

Tess Vigeland: The Journal of the American Medical Association just came out with a study that says people who eat less salt tend to die of heart disease quicker. That goes against decades of research suggesting the opposite. Health experts at Harvard University say the study is flawed and should be ignored.

But what can't be ignored is that we love salt. We eat a lot of it, especially in processed foods like chips and baked goods. PepsiCo claims to
have developed a low sodium potato chip that doesn't taste any less salty.

We asked Sean Cole to visit PepsiCo headquarters and absolutely insisted that he bring an appetite.


Sean Cole: Hello sir!

Greg Yep: How ya doin'?

Cole: How are you?

Yep: Nice meeting you.

Cole: What is your name again?

Yep: Greg Yep.

Sean Cole: Greg Yep is PepsiCo's senior VP of Research and Development. We met up in a boardroom at the company's headquarters in Purchase, N.Y.

Cole: This is great. We have water and we have chips.

Bags of test chips from the lab. And I'm going to taste them. The first bag is just Classic Lay's with a third of the salt removed. The second bag is the same. But it's dusted with a PepsiCo invention called Crystal Salt. It's a more soluble form of sodium chloride. Because Yep says, with normal chips...

Yep: A lot of the salt is not actually tasted. It doesn't dissolve as efficiently on your tongue. When we design Crystal Salt, you actually taste more on your tongue, so you can use less and it gives you more salty flavor.

So the idea is the Crystal Salt chips should taste saltier, more like full-salt Classic Lay's. Because, for one thing, Crystal Salt is a lot finer than regular salt. Yep brought along these Petri dishes of comparative samples.

Yep: Here's what you would see in Lay's Classic.

Cole: This looks just like table salt, like what I would see in a shaker.

Yep: But this is actually table salt.

Cole: Oh, no kidding! So this is actually -- the table salt's more powdery than the Lay's.

Yep: And this is what we call our Crystal Salt.

Cole: This is like cocaine.

Yep: No.

OK, it's like confectioners sugar. Also, PepsiCo changed the shape of the grain in some proprietary, patent-pending way. Anyhow, enough science.

Cole: Hm.

I started with the plain ol' Lay's reduced-salt chip.

Cole: Tastes like a potato chip.

And then sampled a reduced-salt chip with Crystal Salt. And then I went back and forth.

Cole: I'm gonna get fat.

Maybe it's because it wasn't a blind test, but I couldn't really tell the difference. Moreover, PepsiCo says sales of full-salt Classic Lay's are doing fine. So, why go to all this trouble?

Mehmood Khan: That's what the consumers are increasingly asking for. One, I want healthier products. Two, I don't want to compromise on the taste.

Mehmood Khan is chief scientific officer at PepsiCo. He's also an endocrinologist; he used to work at the Mayo Clinic. He says the Crystal Salt initiative is part of a larger goal.

Khan: We've made a commitment to lower the salt content by 25 percent, lower saturated fat and lower sugar, across our portfolio in our top markets. It makes good business sense. It makes good consumer health and wellness sense. Healthy businesses exist in societies that are healthy.

Marion Nestle: We're talking about potato chips here. We're not talking about a health food.

Marion Nestle teaches of nutrition and public health at NYU.

Nestle: And the philosophical question that you have to ask about these products is: Is a slightly better for you option a good choice? When what you really want is you want people eating foods that are unprocessed as possible.

Professor Nestle told me, sure, a third less sodium in a bag of chips is positive. But she also says maintaining the same salt taste as regular Lay's defeats the purpose.

Nestle: Because the purpose of reducing the amount of sodium besides the health effect is to try to get people's salt preferences lower so that the amount of salt that's in products at a much lower level will taste salty to the people who are tasting it.

Case in point: Nestle lowered her salt intake years ago. Everything tastes too salty to her. Conversely, my taste buds are apparently shot. I brought some Classic Lay's with me to the lab and couldn't tell the difference between them and anything else I tasted.

Cole: They're yummy, but they don't taste saltier.

I should mention that a bag of Classic Lay's has 170 milligrams of salt per one ounce serving, which is not dramatically high. But I betcha can't eat just one ounce.

In New York, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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