By Guest Blogger Tyler Anderson

The issue of sodium content in food has been a hot topic in recent months, as our own Ken Odza has blogged about in reporting on the class action lawsuits filed against Denny’s in New Jersey and Illinois. Now the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is addressing the issue. On January 11, the Department unveiled the National Salt Reduction Initiative, targeted toward reducing the salt levels in products offered by restaurants and food companies.

This initiative reflects a voluntary goal led by New York City to reduce the salt levels in packaged and restaurant foods by 25 percent over five years. According to the initiative, accomplishing this benchmark would reduce the nation’s salt intake by 20 percent and prevent up to 800,000 premature deaths nationwide and 23,000 in New York City alone. According to Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Control Program at the Department, the average American adult consumes 3,400 to 3,500 milligrams of sodium per day, while most individuals need about only 1,500 milligrams to satisfy their health needs. The initiative has gathered a wide range of support from parties including the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, Oregon Department of Human Services, and the Washington State Department of Health.

While the National Salt Reduction Initiative reflects a shot across the bow on the subject of sodium reduction in food products, some industry players have been moving in this direction on their own. However, as a recent Wall Street Journal article points out, many of these food manufacturers have been taking a measured approach with regard to the issue of sodium reduction and the manner in which they communicate such changes to consumers. For example, by next summer ConAgra Foods, Inc.’s Chef Boyardee canned pasta will have decreased its sodium content by roughly 35 percent over the last five years. Campbell Soup Co.’s original flavor of V8 100% Vegetable Juice has dropped its sodium content by 32 percent over eight years. Neither of these brands has made any mention of this decrease in sodium content on its packaging.

The reasoning behind this initially surprising silence is, according to food industry executives quoted in the Wall Street Journal article, that dramatic reductions in sodium content often result in different tastes and consumer dissatisfaction that manifests itself as reduced sales. According to Douglas Balentine, Unilever NV’s North American director of nutrition and health, a gradual reduction in sodium allows consumers to adjust to a less drastic change in taste as sodium content is reduced over time. This allows manufacturers to avoid problems such as those faced by the Kellogg Co. in the early 1980s when the company launched low sodium versions of its popular Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies breakfast cereals. According to Celeste Clark, senior vice president of global nutrition for Kellogg, consumers were not satisfied with the flavor of the products and the new brands were scrapped after four years. This balance between health benchmarks and industry performance will continue to shape the regulation of sodium content as this issue continues to grow in prominence.