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Food companies sign up for war on salt

Efforts to reduce Americans' sodium intake are long overdue in the eyes of most health experts.

May 17, 2010|By Emily Sohn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • For decades, people have been ignoring advice to eat less salt, in large part because it's hard to avoid in processed and restaurant foods.
For decades, people have been ignoring advice to eat less salt, in large… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

For decades, people have been ignoring advice to eat less salt — in large part because it's hard to avoid. Processed and restaurant foods are simply loaded with sodium.

Now, under growing pressure from doctors, consumers, states, advocacy groups and even national-level advisors, big-name food companies are slashing sodium from soups, potato chips, sauces, condiments and other products.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration announced its intent to reduce salt in the American diet, beginning with a call for voluntary cutbacks from the food industry. New York City has spearheaded a National Salt Reduction Initiative, and, as part of it, 16 companies (including Starbucks, Subway, Boar's Head and Mars) so far have signed on to voluntarily reduce sodium levels in their foods by 25% over the next five years.

Kraft announced in March plans to cut 10% of the sodium from its North American product line in the next two years. ConAgra Foods Inc. (makers of Chef Boyardee and Orville Redenbacher's brands) aims to cut 20% by 2015. Heinz is cutting 15% of the sodium in its ketchup. Similar pledges have come from General Mills, Unilever, Sara Lee, Campbell's and PepsiCo, which is even attacking its Lay's potato chips.

For manufacturers, cutting salt requires more than just laying off the shaker. Salt balances flavors and textures in products like bread, cheese, cereal and yogurt-based drinks that don't necessarily taste salty. It acts as a preservative, fighting the growth of bacteria. Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is that, to our salt-saturated tongues, without sodium food can taste bland.

To lower salt levels while still pleasing the palates of a salt-obsessed nation, companies are turning to new strategies — from the low-tech end, simply subbing in other spices, to, on the higher-tech end, developing molecules that can replace or enhance salt.

These efforts are long overdue in the eyes of most health experts. In a report released in April, the Institute of Medicine (the U.S. government's official health advisor) urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to adopt new standards for salt and to put limits on sodium levels in restaurant meals and prepared foods.

The report repeated evidence that reducing sodium in American diets — from today's average of more than 3,400 milligrams to the 2,300 mg (about a teaspoon) a day recommended for most healthy people — could prevent 100,000 deaths each year. (African Americans, people middle-aged and older, and those with high blood pressure are advised to consume no more than 1,500 mg.) The report also noted that, though such recommendations have been around for a long time, sodium consumption has generally risen since the 1970s.

"We've had 40 years of history with this and not much success," says Jane Henney, professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati and editor of the Institute of Medicine report. "If over time we can get down to a reasonable level of sodium intake, it's going to make a real difference in terms of health outcomes, and we will see the impact in real dollars in healthcare savings."

Sodium's function

Sodium, along with chlorine, forms the bulk of ordinary table salt, in the form of sodium chloride, or NaCl. In the body, sodium regulates muscle contractions, nerve impulses, water levels and more. Every cell in the body needs it, and the tongue has receptors that tell the brain when salt has entered the mouth.

"The whole system is tuned so that you like salt to make sure that you take in enough sodium to survive," says biologist David Linemeyer, vice president of Senomyx, a flavor research and development company in San Diego.

But if you take in more sodium than the kidneys can handle, the blood retains water, forcing the heart to work harder — raising the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and avoidable deaths.

Even when people try to eat less salt, the mineral is almost impossible to avoid. More than 75% of the sodium we consume comes in packaged and processed foods. A typical portion of American cheese contains 450 mg of sodium. An average bowl of chicken noodle soup has nearly 1,000 mg. A serving of cornflakes has the same amount of sodium as a bagel: about 270 mg. Seven Triscuits add 650 mg.

Then there are the surprising levels in frozen and restaurant meals: nearly 2,000 mg in a Hungry-Man prepared steak meal, 3,300 mg in Olive Garden's Chicken Parmesan and 6,290 mg in Chili's Buffalo Chicken Fajitas with tortillas and condiments.

The Institute of Medicine report suggested that manufacturers and restaurants gradually reduce sodium content over time, with the hope that our tastes will gradually change without any suffering. Some companies, including Campbell's and Kellogg's, had already started to do that, without much fanfare.

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