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.

Jeremy Hobson: Well if you're heading to a Memorial Day barbeque later today, get ready for the burgers, hot dogs,
chips, pickles. Well, let's just say salt.

Doctors tell us we should watch how much salt we eat, and now food companies are reacting with new products.

PepsiCo, which makes Fritos and Lay's Potato Chips, has developed a low-sodium potato chip that doesn't taste any less salty.

Marketplace's Sean Cole has the story.

Sean Cole: Hello sir!

Greg Yep: How ya doin'?

Cole: Greg Yep is PepsiCo's senior V.P. 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 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 designed 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.

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.

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. I want healthier products; 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: It makes good business sense. It makes good consumer health and wellness sense.

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?

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.

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.

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


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