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Salt in focus

Suppliers work to reduce sodium content to boost sales

Processed products like smoked seafood typically have
    a high sodium content.
By Lauren Kramer
May 01, 2008

Over the years, food manufacturers have worked to trim cholesterol, fat and trans fats from their foods, and now they have one more item on the Nutrition Facts label to focus on: sodium.

In November 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration held its first public hearing on whether and how to limit or reduce the salt content in processed foods.

Excessive sodium can contribute to the development of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests an intake of no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, but the average sodium intake is approximately 4,000 mg, according to a recent study by Packaged Facts, "Low, Reduced & No Sodium or Salt Foods & Beverages in the U.S."

Half of the U.S. population, including African Americans, middle-aged or elderly people and those with preexisting hypertension, is advised to consume only 1,500 mg of sodium per day, according to the FDA. The agency considers low-sodium foods to contain 140 mg of sodium or less. Fish is naturally low in sodium, and species with the highest sodium levels contain less than 100 mg per 3-ounce cooked portion. Cooked shellfish has 
higher sodium levels, ranging from 100 to 500 mg. Processed seafood, such as breaded and battered products, smoked products, brine-frozen crab legs and some canned products, can also have significantly high sodium levels.

The National School Lunch Program is still implementing guidelines from 2005, but is already discussing sodium content.

"The 2005 Dietary Guidelines have not been put into place yet, but the recommendations are for the reduction of salt intake for everyone," says Jean Daniel, director of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food & Nutrition Service, which heads the National School Lunch Program.

"When there are hard targets, it's easier to implement changes," she says. "But words like 'reduced' that don't have a hard target have to be worked out before they can be implemented in the school meals program."

Good Harbor Fillet in Gloucester, Mass., sells seafood items to 90 percent of the United States' school lunch programs. "They're all supposed to be following some national guidelines, but some states are doing a better job of it than others," says Ned Hawkins, child nutrition and bid specialist at Good Harbor.

"There have been requirements about total fat, saturated fat, sodium, additives, whole wheat and whole grain items, and each state seems to be going after these items in varied order. I'm not sure if the sodium aspect of it is necessarily high on everyone's list," 
says Hawkins.

Good Harbor reduced the sodium in its cornmeal-breaded pollock strips from more than 1,000 mg per 4.5 ounce serving to 800 mg.

Reducing sodium can be a catch-22: In many instances, sodium is synonymous with taste. "On the one hand, you've got the general public, who wants their food salted and peppered, and on the other hand, you've got the school board. The key is to try to reduce sodium as a flavoring by adding other things - for example, a hint of garlic," says Hawkins.

The degree of difficulty in lowering sodium levels depends on the original product, says Paul Ludtke, director of R&D at the Kerry Group.

"Each product is handled on a case-by-case basis, with consideration given to its flavor profile, its sodium content, the sodium goal or target reduction desired and any restrictions on ingredients that would be allowed in the product," he says. "Typically, sodium is reduced by lowering salt and replacing it with combinations of potassium chloride, yeast extracts or other natural flavors in order to get the same flavor enhancement contributed by salt."

But sodium is a hard ingredient to replicate, according to Packaged Facts. "The main challenge for manufacturers attempting to reduce, lower or eliminate salt from product formulations is the loss of palatability."

But food manufacturers are slowly jumping on the low- or no-sodium bandwagon. The percentage of new foods with label claims of low or no sodium has nearly doubled over the past four years, from 5.5 percent in 2003 to 10.7 percent in 2007, according to Naples, N.Y.-based ProductScan.

As sodium content comes increasingly under the spotlight, the number of solutions to reducing it has increased, including using specialty salts, salt blends, monosodium glutamate, yeast extracts, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and dairy derivatives. From a marketing standpoint, companies are discovering that by highlighting a product's low sodium content, they can create a point of differentiation in the marketplace and drive sales.

At Crown Prince, for example, the company's low-sodium canned pink salmon was just picked up by Wal-Mart. It's part of Crown Prince's natural product line, which includes low-sodium canned kipper snacks, canned sardines in water, canned albacore and tongol tuna and boiled baby clams.

The salt-free albacore tuna, which is one of the top three best-selling products in the natural line, contains 30 mg of sodium per serving, while the salted version of the same product contains 105 mg, says Andrea Linton, director of sales for Crown Prince Natural. "But the quality of the fish we pack is so good that we don't have to enhance the flavor by overdoing the salt," says Linton.

"I think the salt-free products will grow in popularity in the coming years," Linton adds. "The United States has an aging population, and among them a strong component of people who shop in natural food stores. They're the core group concerned about sodium in their foods."

Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British Columbia

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