For food and beverage companies, a gap between Americans' attitudes and actual consumption behavior/taste preferences continues to be the biggest challenge on the reduced-sodium front.
Recent consumer research and retail sales data support this continuing reality, making it clear that the specific implementation timetable for potential Food and Drug Administration sodium-content regulation would be critically important to these companies, particularly in regard to implications for major brands.
FDA sodium content standards, presumably phased in over an as-yet-unclear time frame, appear more likely than ever now that a new Institute of Medicine report has backed this course of action for public health reasons.
While U.S. consumers' awareness of and concern about health threats associated with excessive sodium consumption is increasing, sales trends for F&B products specifically marketed with reduced-, low- or no-sodium claims are apparently not reflecting this as yet -- one indicator that Americans aren't ready to embrace these foods en masse.
Sales data and sales estimates for these products vary, as there are thousands of products making various sodium claims. According to Nielsen Strategic Planner tracking data, total category sales of F&B products making sodium claims were flat last year (at $14.9 billion) in grocery, drug and mass outlets (excluding Walmart) -- although one subsegment, "no salt/sodium-added," showed a 10% sales gain over 2008.
A 2009 sales estimate by Packaged Facts in a new report on low/no sodium F&B in the U.S., based on "a consensus" of manufacturers of products bearing such claims, is much higher: $21.8 billion, representing about 2.8% of the estimated total U.S. F&B sales of $600 billion in '09.
SymphonyIRI data for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 4, 2009 showed dollar sales for grocery, drug, mass and convenience stores (excluding Walmart) for products making low-sodium claims up 5%, but units down 0.1%, versus the same period in '08.
Given the growth in the number of sodium-claims product introductions, flat to relatively small sales growth is not terribly impressive. Datamonitor's ProductLaunch Analytics service showed low-sodium as the #1 growth claim in 2009, with 157 launches -- representing 9% of total F&B launches, not counting 35 no-sodium, 23 low salt (not the same as sodium), and 27 no-salt launches, reports Packaged Facts.
This points to underlying consumer dynamics that make reducing sodium levels in existing brands challenging.
As of February 2010, The NPD Group's National Eating Trends data show 30% of Americans expressing concern about F&B sodium levels -- up from 26% in 2000, but down from 43% in 1990, reports VP Harry Balzer. Furthermore, the number of low/no salt products consumed annually per household is 40 -- up from 30 in 2005, but down from 81 in 1992.
Balzer says that concern may have declined for a time partly because of increasing lower/no sodium options. "If people want to take advantage of these, they know they're available," he notes.
He also cites a shift in consumer emphasis since the 90's regarding "better for you" foods. Products that make "lower" sodium, fat and cholesterol claims have seen consumption decline, while those claiming health-enhancing ingredients and additives (whole grain, Omega 3 etc.) have seen consumption rise, he points out.
But the power of habit is the biggest determinant of all in consumer behaviors, including eating patterns, Balzer stresses. "Taste preferences are so hard to break," he says. "People will try new products, but won't make lasting changes unless products deliver taste, cost and convenience. "
While Balzer believes that sodium concern will eventually return to 90's levels, the question for F&B's is how how much actual consumption will rise. Lower-sodium formulations enabling improved taste continue to advance, but many lower-salt launches have failed -- and studies have shown that consumers tend to equate lower sodium with lesser taste.
"I don't see low-sodium products being viewed as a growth vehicle by major companies," sums up Mintel senior analyst Krista Faron. While big F&B's are introducing more low-sodium options, and have been lowering sodium in major brands, the dominant strategy is a "stealth" approach of gradual reduction without calling this out to consumers, she says.
In other words, companies are gradually changing formulations in the hope of minimizing impact on brands' consumer bases/sales, in response to growing government scrutiny of sodium. "They know it's no longer a matter of choice, even without government regulation, although they would much prefer to make changes according to their own strategies," says Faron.
One strategic exception is Kraft, which recently publicly announced that it will reduce sodium by an average of 10% across its North American portfolio over the next two years. Products whose sodium has been lowered in recent times include Wheat Thins and Oscar Meyer Deli Fresh white turkey.