The human body is a wondrous and mysterious machine. Over 200,000 years into the evolutionary process and scientists say we still don't know how something as simple as the taste of salt—one of the world's most prolific natural elements first used by man thousands of years ago—works in the human body. Sure, we realize its primary functions, and we're aware that though the body requires salt, too much of it over time poses serious health problems. Yet researchers remain surprisingly befuddled on two fundamental questions whose answers might help quell salt addiction—if not at least better explain our deep love affair with the ingredient: How does the brain interpret the taste of salt? And perhaps more importantly, why do we crave so much of it?
Some of the world's leading researchers and food industry professionals gathered on March 30 before a committee of peers and health experts at the Institute of Medicine to tackle these complex questions and other profound issue, attached to consumer salt consumption. The meeting, described merely as an "informational gathering session," was the second in a series of conferences on strategic sodium reduction held in Washington, D.C.
Representatives from organizations, including Kraft, Campbell, Burger King, and Unilever spent the day whisking through power-point presentations outlining market challenges to sodium replacement—a process rife with unresolved technological and scientific problems, while detailing the subtle but calculated measures they're taking to reduce it in their products.
The universal concerns echoed amongst foodservice providers were balancing market competition with nutritional goals, and of course preserving taste. Presenters said fickle taste buds and range of acuity among consumers lusting for that salty fix often won't allow for drastic changes in sodium levels. Nor, as it turns out, will the public's stubborn idea that less sodium equals less taste. "It's a proven fact, said Todd Abraham, senior vice president of research and nutrition for Kraft Foods, "When companies sell products with reduced sodium labels, that's pretty much the death of that product."
As a result, Abraham says brands such as Kraft avoid splashy advertising that might turn off the average consumer, opting instead for the silent but successful stealth approach. Douglas Balentine, director of nutrition sciences for Unilever said his brand has reduced sodium over time in Ragu pasta sauces and Knorr side dishes by as much as 25 percent. Compass Group, has cut back sodium in their soups for over two years using this method, according to Deanne Brandstetter, vice president of nutrition and wellness with the company.
"Gradual reduction is very important,” said Chor Khoo, vice president of global nutrition and health for Campbell Soup. An early advocate, Campbell has practiced stealth for over 40 years resulting in a whopping 50 percent sodium reduction in its soups by this year. "We now offer the lowest sodium products in the market place." Khoo said. Campbell currently produces over 100 low sodium product choices, and recently reduced sodium levels in its tomato soup—consumed by 25 million people a week—by 32 percent.
The biggest reveal of the conference came when nutrition and health manager for Burger King's North America division, Stephanie Quirantes, announced plans to reduce sodium in the Tendergrill chicken patties by 25 percent and said beginning May 1st, consumers can expect chicken tenders with 36 percent less sodium. Over the past 18 months, Burger King assembled a Sodium Task Force to study and implement sodium reductions. Quirantes told the committee the special group comes with a new comprehensive effort on Burger King's part to improve the nutritional value of their products. This also includes removing trans-fat, offering low-fat milk, and providing food nutritional information to customers. "We're examining what people eat most and starting changes there." she said.