Tag Archives: sodium

Chicago IFT: Michael Jacobson, CSPI, the Food Babe and the curious impact of social media

I had the privilege of attending a recent meeting of the Chicago Section IFT (Institute for Food Technologists).  The guest speaker was Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Chairman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who spoke about America’s progress in becoming a healthier-eating nation.

Dr. Michael Jacobson

Dr. Michael Jacobson

Over the last 40 years or so, the CSPI has helped to reduce saturated fatssodium and sugar in our food supply, among other things.  While CSPI has often been a thorn in the side of Big Food in America, its efforts have resulted in meaningful change, usually brought about by government mandate (as opposed to corporate altruism).  And Jacobson is no party-line activist –  – he independently assesses the social benefits vs cost on any initiative, including things as controversial/PC as GMOs (he’s open-minded on this, in case you were wondering).

My key takeaway:  regardless of the advances in food science, our chances of becoming a healthier nation lie in the hands (and mouths) of the consumer.  The locus of influence in food and nutrition is becoming decidedly less institutional.

Food Scientists – heal!
Dr. Jacobson offered that while food scientists have culpability in having created most of the ‘Franken-foods’ that he reviles (“…a breakfast cereal that is nothing more than vitamin-enriched marshmallows…”), these scientists now play a key role in creating healthier alternatives that can be adopted by mainstream America.  

Two things occurred to me during Dr. Jacobson’s presentation, illustrating both the weakness and strength of the consumer:

1) You can build it but they will not necessarily come.  These healthier foods need to appeal to intended consumers for this to work, as was brought home by an attendee who commented that her school district’s new, more nutritional lunches, in addition to costing more, are also discarded much more often by the kids.

The problem is that consumers typically don’t want foods that make health claims.  Putting ‘reduced sodium’ on a package, for example, is almost like saying ‘don’t buy me’.

So the conundrum is:  how do you get people to eat healthier foods without them knowing it?  Not easy.

2) According to Dr. Jacobson, the rise in social media has accelerated the process overall, despite consumers’ sometimes misguided crusades.
Consumers, who previously had no voice, are now collectively applying pressure through social media.

Just this week, the so-called ‘Food Babe’ helped prompt the removal of azodicarbonamide from Subway bread, through a petition that is at 78,000 signatures and counting.  We have been unable to detect one shred of relevant credentials in the area of nutrition, food science, or science in general, about the Food Babe.  She apparently has an undergraduate degree in computer science.  But she cleans up well, is able to get access to influential people, and operates a successful blog.  And guess what – she’s helping dictate your food options!  Deal with it.

Vani Hari - the Food Babe

Vani Hari – the Food Babe

Earlier examples of removed ingredients include:
Kraft Singles removing an artificial preservative (sorbic acid)
General Mills’ Cheerios removing GMOs
And that’s just 2014.
Other recent examples are here, including Starbucks, Gatorade, Kraft Mac and Cheese, and Chick-Fil-A.  These are not inexpensive or simple changes to make, and speak to the power of the consumer.

Yes, the consumer is a fickle, capricious creature and quite often prone to acting immediately (or signing petitions) without checking facts.  But overall, the ability to project a collective voice is starting to make a difference in the food landscape – – and on balance, it appears to be for the better.

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.