Not all members of the media are out to bully their sources into saying something sensational that they don’t really mean. When the voice on the other end of the phone doesn’t know the answer to a question, it’s often just as awkward for the journalist as it is for the interviewee. But when Bill Bangs, senior research fellow at Campbell’s Soup Co., found himself at a loss for words during a February interview with QSR, it wasn’t awkwardness but clarity that dominated the moment.
After a long sigh and an even longer pause, he finally said, “If I was starting today, knowing how far behind I was, I wouldn’t know where to start to be honest.” Essentially, he was tapping out, but his answer was crucial to a multiple-month-long investigation into the sodium content in quick-service menu items.
He’d been asked where a restaurant should start if it was interested in lowering its sodium content. His advice is important. He’s been at Campbell’s for 23 years and was part of the team that developed the company’s healthy soups line back in the 1980s—where the Campbell’s sodium-conscious program got its start. Today he is an integral part of the company’s industry-leading low-sodium initiative. He has seen the iconic soup company build its low-sodium program over the last three decades and would know better than anyone else how a brand could begin a similar line of menu innovations. The only problem was he didn’t. What he did know was that it was too late.
It is increasingly clear that the brands that don’t take their menus’ high sodium counts seriously are going to be stung by consumer and, perhaps worse, government demands in the near future.
When the top-10 quick-serves in the nation were queried as to why sodium content was so high in their menu items, excuses rather than thoughtful and honest responses were offered. PR speak, the stringing together of phrases like “culinary guardrails,” “corporate social responsibility,” and “holistic strategy” until verbs are optional and translation is mandatory, abounded. It is apparent that the industry needs a better game plan.
To prepare the industry, QSR is playing devil’s advocate, challenging the most common arguments used to put off facing the sodium problem. It’s only a matter of time before the consumer media does the same. It’s up to you to be ready.
Some salt is good for the body and safe in moderation.
It’s widely agreed that sodium is important to the body in order for it to function properly. It also occurs naturally in a lot of the foods and drinks we consume. Items like milk, meat, poultry, vegetables, and even water contain sodium. Those amounts, however, only add up to 12 percent of a person’s sodium consumption. The majority of salt is introduced through prepared and processed foods, which people are eating more of today than ever before.
“We’ve seen that major aspects of the cardio vascular disease problems we have today are really new and like most mass diseases, the product of culture,” says Paul Whelton, president and CEO of the Loyola University Health System and the 2007 recipient of the American Heart Association’s Population Research Prize.
According to Whelton, changes in people’s diet and exercise patterns have led to a global dilemma that’s resulted in one in four adults worldwide suffering from high blood pressure. “Things like heart attacks were actually unheard of before the turn of the century. Of course, now it’s the No. 1 complication that we see,” he says.
While sodium might be harmless in small doses, the reality is that people simply aren’t consuming the ingredient in moderation. The number of meals people eat at restaurants has grown by 25 percent since 1984 while the number of made-from-scratch meals fell 13 percentage points during that same period, according to the annual Eating Patterns in America study conducted by NPD Group.
“The diet that we consume these days is primarily processed foods, where as the natural foods that people used for many years have limited sodium,” Whelton says. That combined with an increasingly urban population that no longer experiences the physical activities associated with rural life makes for an unhealthy combination.
Despite the cultural changes at play, many companies still put the responsibility of a balanced lifestyle squarely on the shoulders of the consumers. And while that argument might have worked with calories and fat content, salt is different.
Whelton suggests that sodium intake has spun so widely out of control simply because it is hard to measure. “Consumers don’t realize sometimes the sources of the sodium they’re eating,” he says. “They might eat an apple pie and think there’s a lot of sugar (and be right), but they might not recognize that there’s also a lot of salt in there. It’s disguised.”
It’s for that reason Whelton supports menu labeling and a cooperative solution. Manufacturers, restaurant chains, grocery stores, and consumers will have to work together to make changes, educate the public, and reverse the trend.
“The challenge is that we’re all in this together,” Whelton says. “There is no one guilty party or one saint.”