Mighty good eating

Manufacturers are revamping mainstream grocery products by eliminating sodium, trans fats, sugar and other “unhealthy” ingredients.

By Richard Turcsik

Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee, but some consumers watching their sodium intake were passing up their favorite Sara Lee brand luncheon meats at the deli counter. That prompt­ed the Downers Grove, Ill.-based manufacturer to develop a line of turkey breast and ham with sodium levels up to 32% below the USDA data average.

“Lower sodium offerings are a growing trend in the marketplace,” notes Paula Shikany, director of Sara Lee Deli. “In today’s health-conscious society, more consumers are searching for healthier food options without compromising taste.”

Reducing sodium intake is extremely important, says Dorothea Vafiadis, science and medicine advisor in the Washington, D.C. office of the Dallas-based American Heart Association. According to the AHA, 99% of Americans will develop high blood pressure in their lifetime. “As you age your blood pressure gets higher, so reducing sodium consumption is really an important step,” Vafiadis says. “If you can reach 50 without having any risk factors for heart disease than your chance of reaching age 90 without any heart problems is exponentially greater.

“Over 75% of sodium in the diet comes from processed foods and beverages and restaurant foods, so it is really important that the environment changes and gives consumers more healthier options to choose to have a healthier diet,” she says.

That is prompting manufacturers to reduce sodium; an increasing number of which are finding it’s not only the right, but also the profitable thing to do.

Based upon the strong sales of its sliced-to-order line, introduced in 2009, last month (July 2010) Sara Lee expanded its lower sodium efforts with Sara Lee Fresh Ideas Lower Sodium Pre-sliced deli meats. “Consumers and retailers have both been extremely positive to the sliced-to-order and pre-sliced lower sodium deli meats,” Shikany says.

Sister brand Hillshire Farm is also on a health kick, launching a line of Hillshire Farm Deli Select Ultra Thin Lower Sodium turkey breast and honey ham. “The lower sodium category of foods continues to be an attractive one for many consumers, particularly moms, interested in maintaining healthy diets and lifestyles,” says brand manager Lana Simon. She adds that over the next five years Sara Lee plans on reducing sodium by 20% across key categories. “Hillshire Farm Deli Select Ultra Thin Lower Sodium products feature the American Heart Association’s heart-check mark and are another great tasting solution for our consumers looking to lower their sodium intake without compromising taste.”

When it comes to making products healthier, Sara Lee is not alone. Take a walk down the supermarket aisles and read the nutrition labels. From soup to nuts—and all the juice, bottled tea, cake mix and pancake syrup in between—in each category there’s at least one brand that is kicking the salt, cutting out the saturated and trans fats, eliminating high-fructose corn syrup and reducing the sugar. According to industry officials, much of this revolution is being driven by consumers and retailers.

Retailers lead the charge

“We always have quite a bit of inquiry coming in from shoppers wanting to eat healthy,” says Louis Scaduto, Jr., president of Middletown, N.J.-based Food Circus Super Markets, operator of 10 Foodtown stores along the northern Jersey Shore. “You can definitely see it straight and away from the way people shopped 25 years ago to how they shop today. They are just looking for healthier types of products. There’s an ever-growing demand from our consumer base to have us go to our suppliers and seek out better, healthier alternatives.”

“Retailers are actually leading the way as much as manufacturers are because they get what is growing their business too,” says Lora Van Velsor, vice president of marketing at Pinnacle Foods Group, the Mountain Lakes, N.J.-based manufacturer of a pantry full of supermarket staples, including Duncan Hines cake mixes and Log Cabin syrup. Progressive retailers, including Costco, Wegmans and Whole Foods, are driving the charge, she says. “They definitely see what is growing the business, so they are constantly asking us what are we doing along this path.”

Pinnacle Foods has totally eliminated trans fats from its Duncan Hines Decadent line and nixed the high-fructose corn syrup in Log Cabin, according to company officials. “We changed our formulations because consumers are defining quality in a totally different way than they used to,” Van Velsor says. “It used to be ‘give me something that tastes great and I’ll buy it.’ They are still looking for great taste, first and foremost, but they are also looking for a better nutritional profile and value.”

To address these concerns, Pinnacle developed Log Cabin All Natural. Containing maple syrup and no artificial colors or flavors, Log Cabin All Natural is seen by the company as the “next innovation” in pancake syrup. It’s packaged in a 22-ounce little beige jug that retails for $4.99, positioning it as a value against the more expensive pure maple syrups.

Pinnacle’s food scientists had their work cut out for them when it came to creating a cake mix with zero grams of trans fat that was still richly moist and decadent. “We used consumers a lot during the [development] process because what we found is that no one is willing to give up taste to get a better nutritional profile,” Van Velsor says.

And that is where the conundrum lies. Tinker with the taste of a product too much and manufacturers might have another New Coke disaster on their hands.

Preserving memories

“When you are working on Campbell’s soups, Spaghetti-Os or V-8 you are working on a memory and you want to make sure that you are staying true to that memory by giving people the same great-tasting product that they’ve always loved, but that is now better for them,” says Juli Mandel Sloves, senior manager, nutrition and wellness communications, at The Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden, N.J.

Salt is primarily used by manufacturers for improving taste, but it has a number of other functions.

“There is no substitute for salt,” Mandel Sloves says. “There is nothing else that is going to do the same thing in terms of the taste and function. Salt can balance sweetness, minimize bitterness, keep vegetables colorful, tenderize meat, and give color and texture to bread, so reducing sodium is not simple,” Mandel Sloves says.
Nonetheless, Campbell’s has made significant strides in lowering the sodium on many of its products by as much as 50%. Come September, supermarket shelves will be lined with some 20 Campbell’s condensed soups that have seen their sodium levels reduced by 25% to 45%, depending on the variety. And hitting store shelves in August is a new V-8 offering—Spicy Hot Low Sodium V-8. “That brings our total number of items that are reduced in sodium to over 200,” Mandel Sloves notes.

At Campbell’s, reducing sodium has been an ongoing effort for four decades. “We’ve made some very significant breakthroughs in the past five years, in large part due to the work we’ve done with sea salt,” Mandel Sloves says. “Sea salt has allowed us to maintain a lot of the characteristics that we are looking for in our products while helping us to reduce the sodium content.”

The proprietary sea salt Campbell’s is using in its soup and Pepperidge Farm bread—Mandel Sloves declines to reveal where it is sourced from—is naturally lower in sodium than table salt, which is 99.7% sodium chloride. “We’re doing different types of sodium reduction techniques for our beverages, sauces and pastas,” she says. “You really have to take a hand-crafted approach to every single product. What works for one is not necessarily what works for another, and even what works for one variety of soup is not necessarily what will work for another.”

The lower sodium in the soup is being highlighted by a box on the label. In addition, 25 of Campbell’s Healthy Request soups sport the American Heart Association’s heart-check mark.

“Food products with a heart-check mark are certified,” says Vafiadis of the AHA. “We have science criteria related to different categories, like fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. We work with companies to see what products would fit into their categories and help explain where they need to go if they want to enter a category that we certify.”

Campbell’s is also working with National Salt Reduction Initiative, a coalition of food manufacturers, city and state governments and national health organizations that was spearheaded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in an effort to reduce sodium in packaged foods. “At this time we’ve chosen not to declare any sort of support for the New York City National Salt Reduction Initiative, but we really view that we are on the same page and that we have the same goal,” Mandel Sloves says.

Working together

NSRI has a voluntary goal of reducing the amount of sodium in packaged and restaurant foods by 20% in five years. “If we are able to reduce population sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day we would save hundreds of thousands of lives each year from an early death by cardiovascular disease,” says Sonia Angell, MD, MPH, director of the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Con­trol Program for the New York City De­partment of Health and Mental Hygiene, the agency that’s the coordinator of the NSRI.

“This requires a focused interest on the part of industry to realize that this is an issue of public urgency,” Angell continues. “None of us can do it alone. It’s really something that requires all of us to work together to achieve it.”

That includes retailers. Home delivery retailer Fresh Direct and wholesaler White Rose are NSRI members. “There is certainly a role for grocers and other related suppliers and manufacturers to be engaged in this,” Angell says. “Through their private labels grocers can make decisions regarding sodium content. They can dictate the specs of the product they are purchasing to put their label on it. We certainly encourage retailers to reach out to us via e-mail at salt@health.nyc.gov.”

In today’s health-conscious environment sweeteners are also coming under fire. In July, San Francisco voted to ban vending machines selling soda from city property. That just might open up another avenue for Nestlé’s Juicy Juice brand, which has introduced Juicy Juice Sparkling Fruit Juice Beverage. It’s being marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar-laden soft drinks.

Packaged in 8.4-ounce slim cans targeted to tweens, the drink is 70% juice and 30% carbonated water, providing a full serving of fruit in each can. “We are taking a brand that is known as being healthy and good for kids with our 100% juice line and extending it into a beverage that is hip and fun for slightly older kids,” says Evelyn Wah, marketing associate, Juicy Juice, at Nestlé USA, based in Glendale, Calif.

The line is available in Sparkling Apple, Sparkling Orange and Sparkling Berry and is being merchandised in grocery in four-packs that retail for $3.99. “It’s high in vitamin C and fits in well with a balanced lifestyle,” Wah adds.

New twist on tea

Many consumers view bottled iced tea as a healthier alternative to soda, but according to Eric Skae that’s not always the case. That’s why he created New Leaf tea in 2004. “I’d walk into Whole Foods and they’d have 16 linear feet of Arizona tea made with high-fructose corn syrup,” says the president and CEO of the Old Tappan, N.J.-based New Leaf Brands.

“So I saw an opening for a mid-calorie product sweetened with organic evaporated cane sugar. We created this brand for exactly what retailers are looking for now. I believe the mainstream consu­mer is gearing towards more healthy products and looking for things that are healthier or that have healthier ingredients,” he says. “The high-fructose corn syrup people will fight you to death saying that sugar is sugar, but the perception is that it is not.”

Skae is slowly taking his brand national, brewing up interest in mid-size regional chains, like Lunds/By­erly’s in the Twin Cities and Dierberg’s and Schnucks in St. Louis. “We’re first going into that type of regional chain that is a little more progressive and in front of things, the regional upscale operators that have a pulse on the trends. From there we are moving to the bigger chains,” he says.

Sweet substitutes

Jim May thinks sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are so yesteryear. The president/CEO of Gilbert, Ariz.-based SweetLeaf Sweetener says the future lies in stevia, a bush native to Paraguay with leaves that are 30 times naturally sweeter than sugar. “When we extract from our leaves it is 300 times sweeter,” he says. “We use an extraction technology that only uses purified water. We don’t use ethanol or methanol, which can leave a bad aftertaste,” he says. To cut down on the sweetness, May blends his stevia with inulin, a soluble fiber found in all fruits and vegetables that is also a probiotic that nourishes the good bacteria in the intestines, he says.

“When you use our product you get this wonderfully sweet taste while you are nourishing those good bacteria and improving your health,” he says.

“Very shortly we will be coming out with stevia sugar, where we bound the stevia right to the sugar grain,” May says. “This is for people who still want sugar, but they will only have to use one-quarter as much, so they are reducing their calorie intake by 75%.”

A 75% reduction in calories? Don’t be surprised if Mayor Bloomberg’s next initiative is a stevia plantation growing in Brooklyn.

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