The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Who is Driving the Bus on Reformulation?

Who is Driving the Bus on Reformulation?

Dietitian Dialogues

March 28, 2010

Every trend article for 2010 talks about the growing obesity epidemic and the long-term effects of over consumption of sugar and salt on the American diet. But are consumers flocking to buy low-sodium soup or sugar-free cookies? Not so much.

Retraining America’s Taste Buds

Food manufacturers are slowly lowering the levels of sodium and sugar in their products in an attempt to subtly retrain the taste buds of their customers. It is slightly reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz behind the green curtain, but actually quite effective. The taste difference between canned green beans with and without salt is noticeable and may affect purchasing decisions. Suppliers are making this change without calling it out on the label. The hope is that consumers will not detect the difference and continue to enjoy the product with the added bonus of consuming less salt. No doubt, taste buds can be retrained over time.

From Campbell’s to Kellogg’s

The list of food companies tackling the Sodium and Sucrose issue seems to grow by the week.

Campbell Soup Company has lowered the sodium level in more than 100 of its products – including V8 beverages, Prego Italian sauces, Pepperidge Farms bread, SpaghettiOs, and their soups – by 25 to 50% during the past four years. Sara Lee pledged to make its products healthier with a 20% salt reduction in its ingredients over the next five years – and that includes Ball Park Franks!

The cereal giants are taking different approaches. Kellogg’s is increasing fiber and reducing salt by 30%. General Mills committed to dropping the sugar content in its children’s cereals to single digits from the much-criticized level of 12 grams per serving in its Fruit Loops.

Moving Away from Salt’s Pull

Of course, salt is a vital nutrient and necessary for body function. In the United States, the maximum daily sodium recommendation is 1,500 to 2,300 mg, but the typical American consumes about 3,400 mg per day – and that is a conservative estimate. Seventy to 80% of that amount comes from processed foods, so cutting back on the salt shaker at the table is not enough to achieve an overall sodium reduction. The federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines could reel in the recommended sodium levels to as low as 500 mg per day, according to one insider I’ve spoken with. New Dietary Guidelines are expected to be released by year-end.

The food industry is taking on a formidable task. Decreasing salt in food items is one of the toughest challenges in food science. Salt is inexpensive and it enhances sweetness and diminishes bitterness in flavors. It keeps packaged food fresh longer, plumps up canned vegetables, acts as a component in leavening systems, and helps hold hot dogs together. 

New technology is helping remove sodium while also maintaining the perceived saltiness of reformulated products. For example, a few years ago, ConAgra’s food scientists struggled to reduce the amount of sodium in microwaveable popcorn. Then, they identified a way to grind salt into smaller particles. The 60% smaller particles contact the tongue in more places producing saltiness with less actual salt. Using a proprietary sea salt, Campbell’s cut 32% of the sodium in condensed tomato soup. Many companies are deploying new meaty-tasting ingredients that add an “Umami” flavor, often described as “savoriness,” which adds richness, fullness and complexity to the mix. Ingredients that exhibit this property are mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, Parmesan and Roquefort cheese, soy and fish sauce.

Researchers Look for Salt Substitutes

One research group is experimenting with apple pulp combined with a salt substitute to reduce sodium by 40% in certain chicken products. Consumers who tested the products gave them high marks for flavor and saltiness, but rejected them for texture and overall acceptability. In another example, Irish scientists are experimenting with salt substitutes like potassium chloride in highly seasoned products like Italian sauces. They have lowered the salt content in these products by nearly one-third, and they have actually found that the herbs and spices in the original formula mask the unacceptable bitterness often associated with increased levels of potassium chloride. 

One Company’s Reformulation Efforts

Processing changes can also subtly reduce a product’s sodium content. In the frozen food arena, peas and lima beans are traditionally sorted using a brine or a sieve method. With the brine method, young peas rise to the top and older ones fall to the bottom. If this type of sorting is used, the label must read “Peas, salt,” and the sodium contribution is noted in the nutritional facts panel. Topco Associates, LLC, a $10.7 billion purchasing organization owned by more than 50 retail, wholesale and food service companies, recently revised its purchasing specifications for its private label brands to only buy sieve-sorted peas and lima beans. The ingredient statement will no longer have to declare salt because sieve-sorting does not require brine and separates produce sizes like a colander would. This one small change will reduce the amount of sodium in the food chain by approximately 20,000 pounds!

Give Us Our Health and Great-Tasting Food

To be sure, both consumers and corporate America need to do their part in improving the overall health and wellness of families. Yet, we shouldn’t have to sacrifice flavor and culinary satisfaction. Let’s hope that major food manufacturers continue their commitment to behind-the-scenes reductions in sodium and sugar.

Joanne Murray RD, LDN joined Topco Associates in the newly created position of Health and Wellness Manager. Her primary responsibilities are continuing the Better-for-You initiatives, providing reformulation guidance to suppliers, and serving as liaison to the Topco member dietitian community. Joanne is a trained sensory analyst with extensive experience in product development.

As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at