Marketplace Scratch Pad

Pass (on) the salt

Scott Jagow Jan 11, 2010

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — otherwise known as “Food-Nanny Mike” — announced another health initiative today. Now he wants to reduce the amount of salt in food. Interestingly, some food companies have already been removing salt from their products for years. Did you know that?

New York’s salt-lowering planis supported by 26 other cities and organizations. It aims to cut the salt in packaged and restaurant foods by about 20% over five years. From the press release:

“Consumers can always add salt to food, but they can’t take it out,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. “At current levels, the salt in our diets poses health risks for people with normal blood pressure, and it’s even riskier for the 1.5 million New Yorkers with high blood pressure.

The health commissioner says only 11% of the salt Americans eat comes from their own saltshakers. Unlike Mayor Bloomberg’s initiatives to cut trans fats and require restaurants to post calorie information, the National Salt Reduction Initiative is voluntary. The Subway restaurant chain has agreed to go along, but other companies say it’s too aggressive. Here’s Campbell’s press release:

“We share a common goal to help improve the health of Americans, but our path to get there is very different,” said Chor-San Khoo, Vice President of Campbell’s Global Nutrition and Health. “We appreciate the opportunity to participate in meetings with New York City officials to share key lessons from our long-standing sodium reduction efforts. Their sodium reduction vision is laudable. However the targets proposed are quite aggressive and difficult to achieve, particularly in the recommended timeframes.”

What Campbell’s means by its “long-standing sodium reduction efforts” is explained in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Instead of offering foods labeled as low salt that few people eat, they are gradually reducing the salt from some of their most popular items–and not making a big fuss about it on the label.

By next summer, ConAgra Food Inc.’s Chef Boyardee canned pasta will have decreased its sodium by about 35% over the course of five years without a word on the package. Campbell Soup Co.’s original flavor of V8 100% vegetable juice also silently dropped its sodium by 32% over eight years.

Why are companies being stealthy about going healthy? Apparently, people need to be weaned off salt. They don’t seem to like it when you banish the sodium all at once:

In the early 1980s, after public-health advocates began sounding alarms, Kellogg Co. launched Low Sodium Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Low Sodium Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. They had no sodium per serving versus 300 milligrams in the original cereal–and few buyers. Kellogg scrapped the products after four years.

Consumers thought the new products were “bland and devoid of flavor,” says Celeste Clark, who was then the cereals’ brand manager and today is the senior vice president of global nutrition.

That experience helped push Kellogg to reduce sodium gradually while focusing on maintaining consumers’ acceptance of how the products taste. Kellogg’s All-Bran cereal shed three-fourths of its sodium over 20 years as the company simply added less salt.

Besides being a flavor-enhancer, salt is a preservative, ensuring food lasts longer. Reducing it is somewhat expensive, so why would companies want to take it out? It appears they saw a measure like Bloomberg’s coming, or perhaps they were worried people might start suing for being salted to death?

What do you think of the New York measure?

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