Consumer Education Remains a Challenge in Sodium Reduction
Despite the food industry’s concerted efforts in the last few years to reduce sodium in foods, consumers still have many misconceptions about sodium’s impact on health. As moderator John Ruff, IFT President-Elect, said in his introduction to the “Stimulating Sodium Reduction and Overcoming Technological Challenges” late-breaking session held Wednesday morning, June 27, only 50% of consumers are aware of the link between sodium and high blood pressure. With 31% of deaths in America caused by cardiovascular diseases and the majority of Americans consuming way more than the recommended daily intake of sodium, it is apparent that the challenge to educate consumers is a vital one.
Part of this education needs to entail communicating with consumers about where the majority of their sodium is coming from. According to Ruff, 77% of sodium comes from processed foods, and only 11% comes from cooking and adding salt at the dinner table. However, when consumers think about making an effort to cut down on their sodium, they often forgo the salt shaker at meal time. In addition, “consumers think that salty snacks are the main source of sodium in their diets,” said Ruff, “when in reality, out of processed foods, breads contain the most sodium.”
There are obvious and known challenges to decreasing sodium in such processed foods. As MaryAnne Drake, North Carolina State Univ., explained to attendees, salt is a very functional ingredient in food products. It provides microbial stability, structure/texture, and flavor. And with salty taste being a main driver of liking, reformulating products to lower sodium needs to be done cautiously. “The products have to taste good and similar to their traditional full-sodium counterparts,” explained Drake.
“Very few consumers are willing to give up taste for health benefits,” said Barbara Davis, Health Focus International. In fact, even when faced with a serious illness or heart-related disease, only 17% are willing to sacrifice taste for health. Davis went on to say that in order to drive home the point that consumers need to reduce their sodium intake, the messaging need to be relevant to them. And sometimes, this is not a health message. For example, while 37% of women respond to medically driven concerns surrounding sodium, almost as many (26%) respond more to concerns over sodium causing bloating and water weight gain.
Davis also believes that instituting a new method for labeling sodium on food packaging might help consumers keep tabs on their daily allotment. “Milligrams don’t mean much to consumers when they are looking at the Nutrition Facts Panel,” said Davis. She proposes a point system for sodium, in which one point would be equal to 100 mg of sodium. Similar to the Weight Watchers Points program, consumers would know that, if they are healthy, they should consume 23 points or under a day, and if they are at risk, they would have 15 points/day.
So obviously there are still hurdles to overcome for the food industry to market low-sodium foods and have them accepted by consumers. However, it is clear we are moving in the right direction. “More than 50% of consumers say that reduced-sodium products taste better than they used to,” said Davis. And as Ruff said in his introduction, a step-wise approach to modifying food products is necessary in order for consumers to get used to lower levels of sodium in foods.