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Salt in focus
Suppliers work to reduce sodium content to boost
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:
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
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
"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
"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
"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
Good Harbor reduced the sodium in its cornmeal-breaded
pollock strips from more than 1,000 mg per 4.5 ounce serving to
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
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