Is soup good food? Hard to tell sometimes.

Next to perennial diet enemies fat and sugar, sodium has never gotten much respect — probably because overconsumption of sodium doesn’t lead to a spare tire or other jiggling parts.  But too much sodium does contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure, and sodium reduction is now hitting the mainstream.  How do we know this?  Because the lawyers have gotten involved.

The Campbell Soup Company was recently hit with a lawsuit claiming that some of its Healthy Request soups contain too much sodium, despite a ‘Heart-Check’ endorsement from the American Heart Association (seen mostly on Campbell’s website), implying that Campbell’s is in the tank with the AHA (read: payola).

AHA Heart Check Logo

AHA Heart Check Mark

This is a case where technically Campbell seems to meet the AHA criteria, but where the consumer perception of benefit is probably greater than reality.   Which means it cannot be a permanent solution.

The market will ultimately choose an approach that combines great taste, reasonable sodium levels, and some way to convey these benefits without implying a taste tradeoff.  Not easy, but it’s happened before (trans-fats) and as awareness of sodium dangers gain visibility, a tipping point is inevitable.

Campbell's Healthy Request Soups

Campbell’s Healthy Request Soups

A quick fact-check:

–       To get the Heart-Check seal, a product must contain (among other things) no more than 480 milligrams of sodium per serving.

  • Never mind that the AHA advocates just 1500 mg per day of sodium, and that it classifies ‘low sodium’ as 150 mg or less per serving.  It’s their seal and they can do what they want with it.

AHA Heart Check Nutritionals

–       A typical serving of Campbell Healthy Request soup has around 400 mg, which clearly fits the guideline.

Campbell HR ChickenNoodle Nutritionals

Case closed?

Well, yes and no – each can has between 2 and 2.5 servings.  And according to a recent survey, over 60% of consumers would eat a whole can at a sitting.  Meaning the real sodium intake of just one soup experience could be 800-1000mg or more.  Which wouldn’t seem to be too helpful in reducing the current American average intake of 3500mg/day to a commonly held target of 1500-2300mg.

–       So there’s a fair argument that advertising as ostensibly ‘Heart Healthy’ is misleading.

–       Considering that 75% or more of sodium intake is through processed foods, this sets an unhealthy precedent for using an association endorsement to market foods with healthy benefits.  Americans can’t effect enough change with the salt shaker – it’s largely up to manufacturers to supply solutions.

Campbell has had its own corporate struggle with sodium.  In 2010 it announced significant sodium reduction in many of its soups, only to reverse course in 2011 when sales declined.   As Campbell is a public company, and is in business to make profits, it has justification in responding to marketplace demand.

Consumers care about sodium intake, but they care about taste more.  So it seems that using sodium reduction as a mainstream messaging effort will be very challenging, as ‘reduced sodium’ translates for most people to ‘bland as cardboard’.

A more appropriate approach going forward might want to include the following steps:

1) Continued formulation to deliver reduced sodium with great taste.  There are some great new salt alternatives available that should make this possible.

2) Use a so-called ‘stealth’ approach to reduce sodium gradually, and enable consumers to adjust their palates’ expectations over time.   With less salt, over time, Americans might even be able to taste the delicate and sophisticated flavor nuances that exist in most processed foods. (the thyme!  the basil!  the hydrolyzed corn protein!)

3) Continue the use of benefit-focused claims (along the lines of ‘heart healthy’), as opposed to ‘less of’ formulation claims (e.g. ‘reduced sodium’) – this is one of the only ways to convey ‘good for you’ and ‘good tasting’ at the same time.

Long-term, whether carrying an endorsement or not, manufacturers will need to make sure that sodium reductions are real and truly help the consumer –  and that the product tastes great.

But as it becomes easier for consumers to check nutritionals while shopping, the bar will inevitably be raised for both manufacturers and associations seeking an endorsement relationship.


2 responses »

  1. Chris von der Linden

    Hi Dave:

    The uproar about product claims vs. reality is very real. One of my former colleagues is working for a firm called Food Essentials that basically catalogs the ingredients of any UPC. The FDA purchases that relational database to do “Food Police” work for precisely this reason. I think this truth in advertising trend will only gain momentum. Very interesting post btw.

    In light of it I thought you might also find this interesting:   I hope you are well. I’ve got my ear firmly planted on the rail.

    Chris von der Linden 618-409-1592



  2. Rebecca Mallett

    Thanks for referencing my Hoover’s Bizmology post about Campbell’s. You are right that food manufacturers walk a fine line between promoting health and delivering on taste. Companies are challenged to create both, while still boosting profits.



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