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Big Food And The Big, Silent Salt Experiment

Dec 20, 2012
Originally published on December 20, 2012 10:18 pm

Have you noticed, perhaps, that some of your store-bought salad dressings or spaghetti sauces taste a little less salty lately?

Probably not. The companies that make those products are doing their best to keep you from noticing. Yet many of them are, in fact, carrying out a giant salt-reduction experiment, either because they want to improve their customers' health or because they're worried that if they don't, the government might impose regulations that would compel more onerous salt reductions.

Todd Abraham, senior vice president for research and nutrition at Mondelez International, says the company is committed to reducing the amount of salt in its crackers and cookies. Mondelez, recently spun off from Kraft Foods, makes some of the country's best-known crackers and cookies, including Ritz crackers, Triscuits and Oreos.

"Sodium reduction is important to us because it's important to our consumers," he says.

Yet sodium reduction does not appear to be the most important thing to those consumers. It seems less important, for instance, than familiar taste.

Take Ritz crackers. Abraham has a couple of boxes of them on the table, right beside him. One is the original, standard version; the other is labeled "Hint of Salt; a low-sodium choice."

The "Hint of Salt" crackers have only a third as much salt as the originals. That's the good news. The bad news is, they don't sell nearly as well.

In fact, a label that says "low salt" actually seems to turn consumers away. "What we've found with consumers — if you say something is 'low salt,' they'll immediately think it doesn't taste as good as the full-salt version," says Abraham.

So Mondelez is trying a different strategy. Over the past five to seven years, the company has been cutting salt from some of its top-selling products, but quietly, without telling anyone.

For instance, that box of original Ritz crackers: "It's reduced by probably 15 to 20 percent from where it was when we first introduced it to the market," Abraham says.

Many other big food companies are taking similar measures.

It's a complicated job, because salt is everywhere, and it's not just there for taste. Salt keeps some foods safe, because it kills bacteria. It helps bread turn brown while baking, and gives lunch meat just the right texture.

But the biggest obstacle to cutting out salt remains the fear that consumers won't like the change in taste and will switch to other products.

So companies are turning to a bag of magic tricks that make the salt sensors on our tongues think food is just as salty, even when there's less salt in it.

Like any magician, Abraham is a little cagey about the details. "We have some learnings and some knowledge that I can't talk much about: How you apply salt, at what particle size, where on the cracker surface," he says.

For instance, you can get by with less salt if you put it on the surface of a cracker instead of buried in the dough. Tiny salt crystals, or even hollow salt crystals, deliver more taste per gram of sodium than big crystals.

Also, it's possible to replace some salt with potassium chloride, the one substance that tastes a little bit similar. "Potassium is actually good for you," Abraham says, "so it's a good alternative, but if you put too much potassium in the product, it's going to start to taste very bitter."

Another trick: Sometimes, if you add more herbs and spices, consumers can't taste that there's less salt.

Douglas Balentine, the North America director of nutrition and health for Unilever — which makes Ragu pasta sauce, Wish-Bone salad dressings and lots of soups — says companies may be able to take advantage of something else that scientists have learned.

Basically, our sensitivity to salt seems to adapt when we eat less of it for a couple of months, the same way our eyes adjust when we step into a dimly lit room. "You should be able to gradually reduce salt levels in the product over the course of time in small steps, and when you gradually do that, consumers gradually get used to the taste of those products with less salt," he says.

But Balentine recalls one case in which his company tried to cut too much, too quickly. The product was a soup stock that it sells in Europe. "I think it was a 50 percent reduction in salt that we'd gotten to. We thought it was going to be OK, but then, over the course of six months, you saw sales drop significantly," he says. Sales of this product had been going up before the recipe was changed. "So we said, 'Oops, we have to stop now or maybe go up a little bit to a place where consumers say it's acceptable.' "

Balentine thinks that Unilever probably has gone as far as it can, for now. "We're going to have to wait a little bit for the consumer to adapt and get used to the new products," he says.

Eventually, though, Unilever wants to go further, reducing salt in its products to a level at which a consumer eating a normal diet would meet salt consumption targets — 5 grams per day — set by the World Health Organization.

Balentine doesn't think it will be possible to meet that goal just through consumers adapting to the taste of less salt. He thinks the food industry will need some new tools, such as novel food additives that will boost the impact, on our tongue's salt sensors, of each salt molecule.

Those new tools, which remain in the dreams of food scientists, would deliver more salt taste with less sodium.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Public health experts want most of us to eat less salt because the sodium in it can raise our blood pressure. But doing that isn't as simple as putting down the salt shaker. Most of the salt we consume is already in the food that we take home from the supermarket, whether it's bread, pasta sauce or cheese. The big companies that make that food say they're open to change. As NPR's Dan Charles reports, they're happy to cut back on salt, but only so long as consumers don't notice.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Todd Abraham is a senior vice president for research and nutrition at Mondelez International, which makes some of the biggest names in crackers and cookies.

TODD ABRAHAM: So we have Wheat Thins and we have Ritz, we have Triscuit, as well as America's and milk's favorite cookie, Oreo.

CHARLES: Abraham says his company wants to put less salt in all of these products.

ABRAHAM: Sodium reduction is important to us because it's important to our consumers.

CHARLES: Except that it seems to be a lot less important than some other things, like getting that familiar taste. Take Ritz crackers. Abraham has a couple of boxes of them right here on the table.

ABRAHAM: We have the original Ritz cracker that consumers grew up with, and we have one that's a hint of salt.

CHARLES: "Hint of Salt" is printed right on the front of the box, along with the words "a low sodium choice." These crackers have only a third as much salt as the original ones. But they don't sell nearly as well. In fact, Abraham says a label that says low salt actually seems to turn consumers away.

ABRAHAM: What we found with consumers if you say something is low salt, they'll immediately think it doesn't taste as good as the full-salt version.

CHARLES: So Mondelez is trying a different strategy. Over the past five to seven years, the company has been cutting salt from some of its top-selling products, but quietly, without telling anyone. For instance, that box of original Ritz crackers.

ABRAHAM: It's reduced by probably 15 to 20 percent from where it was when we first introduced it to the market.

CHARLES: In fact, all over America, food companies are carrying out a giant salt reduction experiment, either because they want to do the right thing or because if they don't, they might be forced to by future government regulations. It's a complicated job because salt is everywhere, and it's not just there for taste. Salt keeps some foods safe for longer because it kills bacteria. It gives lunch meat just the right texture.

But the biggest obstacle to cutting out salt is still making sure consumers like the taste because nobody wants to lose market share. So companies are turning to a bag of magic tricks that makes the salt sensors on our tongues think food is just as salty even when there's less salt in it. Like any magician, Todd Abraham is a little cagey about the details.

ABRAHAM: We have some learnings and some knowledge that I can't talk much about, about how you ought to apply topical salt, at what particle size, at what, you know, what - where on the cracker itself.

CHARLES: For instance, you can get by with less salt if you put it on the surface of a cracker instead of buried in the dough. Tiny salt crystals, or even hollow salt crystals, deliver more taste per gram of sodium than big salt crystals. Also, you can replace some salt with the one substance people have found that tastes a little bit similar: potassium chloride.

ABRAHAM: Potassium is actually good for you. It's part of that balance that you need in your blood system, so that's a good alternative. But if you put too much potassium in the product, it's going to start to taste very bitter.

CHARLES: Another trick: Sometimes if you add more herbs and spices, consumers can't taste that there's less salt. Douglas Balentine is the director of nutrition and health for North America of Unilever, which makes Ragu pasta sauce, Wish-Bone salad dressings and lots of soups. He says companies may be able to take advantage of something else that scientists have learned. Basically, our sensitivity to salt seems to adapt when we eat less of it for a couple of months, the same way our eyes adjust when we step into a dimly lit room.

DOUGLAS BALENTINE: You should be able to gradually reduce the salt levels of product over a course of time in small steps. And when you gradually do that, consumers get more used to the taste of those products with less salt.

CHARLES: But Balentine says in one case, his company tried to cut too much too quickly. The product was a soup stock that it sells in Europe.

BALENTINE: I think it was a 50 percent reduction in salt we'd gotten to. We thought it was going to be OK. And then, over the course of six months, you saw sales drop significantly.

CHARLES: Sales had been growing.

BALENTINE: So we said, oops, we have to stop now or maybe even go up a little bit just to put it back into a place where consumers say it's acceptable.

CHARLES: Balentine thinks that Unilever probably has gone as far as it can for now.

BALENTINE: We're going to have to wait a little bit for the consumer to adapt and get used to the new products.

CHARLES: But the company wants to cut out more salt, down to a level where a consumer eating a normal diet would meet a target that the World Health Organization has set for salt consumption. Balentine does not think they'll get there just by having people get used to less salt. He thinks the food industry will need some new tools, maybe some novel food additives that will boost the impact on our tongues of each salt molecule, delivering more salt taste with less sodium. Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.