Increasing awareness of sodium-associated health risks, as well as growing pressure from government and consumer advocacy groups, are turning sodium into "the new trans fat" for food and beverage manufacturers and restaurants, concludes Mintel, based on its latest consumer data and trends analysis.
More than one-quarter (25.7%) of consumers surveyed in July by the market research firm reported "always" watching their salt intake -- slightly more than those saying they always watch fat (25.1%) and sugar (24.2%), Mintel executives Krista Faron and David Lockwood reported in a recent Webinar. The proportion of consumers who say that they "always or usually" watch salt intake is twice as high (51.5%), and more or less on par with those who say the same about fat and sugar (56.8% and 51.4%, respectively).
When it comes to the main factors linked to heart disease, 50% cite too much salt -- the same percentage that cite genetics -- although much larger proportions cite insufficient exercise (81%) and fat (71%).
One-quarter of consumers are sodium "watchers" who are already looking for communication about sodium on food and beverage products, and willing to try new products that help them reduce intake, according to Mintel.
Another 45% have some awareness about sodium's health risks, and are likely to have tested some low-sodium products. However, these consumers will need to see strong and consistent information from multiple sources -- friends and colleagues, as well as government and media sources -- before they make significant dietary changes.
The 29% who report being unconcerned about sodium are generally unconcerned about health issues (75% of these consumers don't seek any type of health information from any source).
Although 77% of Americans' sodium intake comes from processed and prepared foods, food makers and restaurants have been slow to change.
According to Mintel's Global New Products Database, the numbers of low, no and reduced sodium food introductions in the U.S. are growing, but still very small. Last year, they included 85 snacks, 47 soups, 42 bakery items, 38 sauces and seasonings, and 35 side dishes. Those numbers represented year-over-year increases of 121%, 42% and 39% for the bakery, soup and snacks categories, respectively, but decreases of 41% and 28% for side dishes and sauces/seasonings, respectively.
In regard to messaging on these products, low sodium claims dominated, accounting for 44% of launches between June 2008 and June 2009. Low sodium was followed by sodium-free (21%), a specific percentage reduction in sodium (19%), no salt added (10%), a statement of the level of sodium per serving (4%), and sea salt (2%).
Consumers confirm that they want more on-pack information regarding sodium. More than half (54%) said that the package messaging most likely to convince them to buy a reduced-sodium product would include the percentage of sodium reduction versus the product's standard formulation, combined with the number of milligrams of sodium per serving. In comparison, 21% said the sodium reduction percentage alone would be most convincing. However, 24% said that neither approach would convince them to buy.
Restaurants face even bigger challenges than food companies when it comes to transitioning from high to lower sodium content, Mintel points out.
Consumers are less aware of sodium when eating out than eating in: Just 14% said that they always or usually watch sodium content in restaurants, versus the afore-noted 52% who monitor sodium intake at home.
Perhaps reflecting this lack of pressure -- as well as restaurants' fear of tampering with the taste of recipes, particularly when competition for the consumer's dollar is at an all-time high -- menu items promoted as low in sodium represent a tiny fraction of those being promoted as low in fat, and even those promoted as low in carbs, Mintel's data show.
However, studies consistently show that when cities or states require restaurants to post trans fat and other content in menu items, consumers are making healthier choices -- so it is not surprising that 66% of those recently surveyed by Mintel said they believe that individuals will use the content information, including sodium levels, if it is posted.
With nutrition disclosure mandates gathering momentum, the new administration's emphasis on preventative health care, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) filing of a sodium-content class action suit against Denny's last month, the sodium issue is becoming increasingly visible, and is certainly on the restaurant industry's radar.
Mintel points to Burger King U.S.'s move to reduce sodium across kids' meals as one response. Another example: Moe's Southwest Grill has said that it may reformulate its marinades and sauces as part of its efforts to reduce sodium content.
But the issues are not likely to be resolved easily, given their scope. In May, researchers for CSPI investigated 17 chains, and found that 85 out of 102 meals analyzed contained more than the 1,500 mg maximum per day recommended the Centers for Disease Control for 70% of the population. Several chains were offering meals with sodium levels of 4,000 to 5,000 mgs.