How do brands balance sodium reductions and consumers’ taste standards? No one is saying food should be tasteless. But what I understand is that when McDonald’s cut the sodium in its chicken McNuggets in Britain, their sales increased. Yum! Brands in the U.S. is lowering sodium levels. It’s something that companies have to do some experimenting around. Some companies may need to gradually reduce sodium over several years. When Burger King testified at the Institute of Medicine meeting, the spokeswoman said, ‘At Burger King we like to do things in a big way. We’re not going to settle for small reductions. We’re aiming for big reductions, not gradual ones.’ So it may depend on the company.
The best thing about the government getting involved, which it will, is that it pressures all companies to lower sodium levels. Then specific companies won’t feel they’re the only ones and that people won’t like their food. It levels the playing field.
New York City is working toward a gradual reduction in sodium levels. Do you support that strategy? Yes, we really support New York and think they’re doing the right thing. I hope they get voluntary compliance, but they’re also ready to regulate. They can require warning notices on excessively salty foods. So it could have a big impact. And they’re working with other city health departments, so it’s really much broader than New York City.
Is there a timeline for when all of this will be mandatory? The Institute of Medicine is going to come out with two reports soon; one on hypertension prevention that will certainly say that lowering salt is an important component, and they’re scheduled to issue a second one in February that is a report on how sodium should be lowered in the American diet. Some of that will be consumer-oriented (people should read labels), but they’ll also go into different techniques like using a little potassium chloride or using less salt, using tastier ingredients so you don’t need as much salt. They’ll give technical tricks and talk about government regulation—what the FDA should or could do. And I’m sure that will be a basis for FDA involvement.
On another timeline, Campbell’s has already lowered sodium in its soups, so that puts pressure on other soup companies. We’re going to see more of those types of competitive pressures.
What other ingredients will you be going after in 2010? Salt is the single most dangerous ingredient in the food supply. Several experts have estimated that if we can cut sodium levels in packaged and processed foods in half, it would save 150,000 lives a year. Nothing else in the food supply approaches that.
The much smaller thing that there’s been very little discussion of is food dyes that are in many soft drinks, Jell-O, fruit drinks, and cookies. They’re mostly in kids’ foods. Food dyes affect children’s behavior, and it’s something that shouldn’t be in the food supply. They’re just inappropriate considering the evidence that’s built up over the years.
The European Union is requiring a warning notice on foods with dyes. That will go into effect in July. And the British government has told companies to replace dyes with natural colorings or nothing at all.
Is there anything else beyond ingredients? The bigger challenge is, how do we get people eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? That’s something that won’t be done by fiat. No one is going to require consumers to eat at restaurants that offer five servings of fruit or vegetables a day. It will get increasing attention from health officials, especially in relationship to obesity.
There will likely be media campaigns; maybe health departments will award stickers to restaurants that serve certain number of fruit and vegetable dishes. But a lot of it can be done voluntarily, and restaurants can certainly do their part. No one is going to ask them to give up meat, poultry, and cheese in favor of vegetarian dishes. Hopefully, though, they’ll start experimenting with new options. But it’s going to take a lot of consumer education because people like their fried chicken.