Sodium Reduction Efforts by the Canadian Food Industry

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Research has linked high dietary sodium intakes to elevated blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Efforts are underway to raise awareness of this health issue and to lower the amount of sodium consumed by Canadians. The Canadian food industry has voluntarily stepped up its efforts to reduce the sodium content of processed foods. This report outlines some of the recent progress industry has made as well as the related challenges and lessons learned.

Canada's sodium reduction strategy

In 2007, Health Canada announced the establishment of a multi-stakeholder Sodium Working Group (SWG) to develop a population health strategy to reduce the sodium content of the diets of Canadians. The SWG included 25 representatives from food industry, academia, health and consumer advocacy groups, and various government departments and agencies, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). The resulting Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada (the Strategy) was designed to help lower the sodium intake of Canadians from an estimated 3,400 mg/day/person to an interim goal of 2,300 milligrams (mg)/day/person by 2016. Ultimately the goal is to lower the sodium intake to a population mean whereby more than 95% of individuals have an intake below 2,300 mg/day.Footnote 1

The SWG recognized that a successful strategy would require a comprehensive, multi-staged approach that engaged all sectors. The Strategy embraces widespread collaboration and includes 27 recommendations across four areas:

  • Food Supply - a structured voluntary reduction of sodium levels in processed food products and foods sold in foodservice establishments;
  • Awareness and Education - of consumers, industry, health professionals and other key stakeholders;
  • Research - including population health, nutrition and food science; and
  • Monitoring and Evaluation.

It has been estimated that approximately 77% of dietary sodium comes from processed foods, while 12% is naturally occurring and 11% is from discretionary sources (6% added at the table and 5% during cooking).Footnote 2 As a result, the food industry is seen as having a key role to play in sodium reduction efforts through modification of processed foods. However, the Strategy recognizes that achieving public health outcomes depends on the successful implementation of the recommendations in all four areas. For example, increased consumer awareness and education will drive demand for lower sodium food products, while research will enable the development of lower sodium foods that are accepted by consumers.

One recommendation in the Strategy was for Health Canada to continue its work with the food industry to establish voluntary sodium reduction targets. Another was for manufacturers to meet these targets and then go beyond them to reach the lowest level of sodium possible while taking into consideration microbial food safety, quality and consumer acceptance. In consultation with industry, Health Canada published Guiding Benchmark Sodium Reduction Levels for Processed Foods. These benchmarks include three phased levels to guide the food industry in achieving targeted sodium reductions in processed foods by the end of 2016.

The role of sodium and salt in food

Significantly lowering the level of sodium in processed foods is not a straightforward task because sodium is a component of many common ingredients. For example, salt, which is ubiquitous in the food supply, is comprised of 40% sodium (by weight); this makes it the main contributor of sodium in the diet. In addition, sodium is also a common component of many food additives such as sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAP), and ingredients such as baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).

Finding suitable sodium replacements can be difficult because salt and sodium have a variety of functions in processed foods. In addition to being a flavour contributor and enhancer, salt and sodium also play functional roles that are critical to the nature and integrity of food products. These roles include aiding in the development of texture and colour, microbial safety, preservation and shelf life, fermentation control, and protein binding. For example, in baked goods, baking soda is used for leavening and salt is used for flavour, to strengthen gluten in the dough to aid with texture, and to control fermentation. In cheese, salt assists with microbial stability, texture and flavour. Other factors that make salt a critical ingredient to food processors are its availability, ease of use and handling, and low cost.

Industry progress

While industry is committed to lowering the sodium content of processed foods, it is often easier for product developers to create a new food product containing less sodium than it is to reformulate an existing product to reduce the sodium level. This is because consumers are already familiar with existing products and have certain expectations surrounding their taste, appearance, shelf life and texture. When any of these attributes changes noticeably, it is often perceived as an undesirable difference or considered to be a quality control issue with the product. For example, a bread product that suddenly appeared with a crust colour lighter than what consumers had come to expect would probably be assumed to be an error made by a baker who had not controlled the oven temperatures properly as opposed to a reduction in sodium. This is less likely to be an issue for a newly introduced lower sodium bread product as long as the lighter colour is within the consumers' range of acceptable colours for bread products. In this way, new products often have a wider range of consumer-acceptable differences than existing products that are reformulated.

Information reported by Datamonitor suggests that sodium levels of new product launches align with the phase 1 benchmark levels, and in some cases the lower phase 3 levels for which the deadline is December 2016, although no definitive analysis has been done at this time.

Industry perspective

Recognizing that the successful reduction of sodium in processed foods is complex, AAFC was interested in collecting information on the progress Canadian companies were making with their sodium reduction efforts, the strategies they used to lower sodium, the various challenges they faced and the business impacts of their efforts. A qualitative, voluntary survey was conducted between October 2011 and March 2012 with 55 Canadian food companies (35 manufacturers, 5 retailers and 15 foodservice operators). In addition, AAFC commissioned a food industry case study to document the experience of a multi-national food manufacturer as it reduced the sodium level in two of its products where sodium either plays mainly a functional role (i.e. a cheese) or is used solely for the flavour profile (i.e. a cracker).Footnote 3

Although not representative of the whole food industry, the results indicate that most of the surveyed companies had a sodium reduction strategy, policy or guidelines in place. Most also had taken steps to reduce the level of sodium in their products:

  • Thirty of the 40 manufacturers/retailers surveyed had products that met the draft sodium targets.Footnote 4  Of those, 10 estimated having reduced the sodium content of between one quarter and three quarters of their products to meet the draft sodium target levels. Several had been especially proactive in their efforts, indicating that they had been working on sodium reduction prior to the release of the guiding benchmark levels.
  • Although there were no draft targets specific to the foodservice industry, 13 of the 15 operators surveyed reported having reduced the sodium level in some of their products. The most commonly mentioned categories were meat products; sauces, seasonings and condiments; and bakery, dough and bread products.

Factors driving sodium reduction priorities

Almost all of the surveyed companies reported that they were currently engaged in sodium reduction activities. The main categories of focus included entrées, meats, soups and seasonings for the manufacturer/retailer group, and meats, sandwiches, soups and burgers for foodservice operators. The factors driving the sodium reduction efforts are identified in Table 1.

Table showing Factors Driving Sodium Reduction Efforts in Surveyed Companies
Table 1: Factors Driving Sodium Reduction Efforts in Surveyed Companies
Factors Driving Efforts to Reduce Sodium Number of responses
Best interest of consumers / Wanting to offer healthy products to consumers 19
Health Canada initiative / Possibility of regulations 14
Consumer/client interest in or request for lower sodium products 11
Maintain credibility or healthy image with consumers 6
Avoid negative media attention 6
Remain competitive 4
Social responsibility / Good corporate citizen 2
Other 2

Prioritizing the order in which products will be worked on was a necessity for almost all companies that participated in the survey, as the amount of money, time and effort that is required to reduce sodium in a product is substantial. This effort is confirmed by the case study, where the research and development activities required to develop a low sodium, flavoured cracker product spanned a one-year time period. This included 6 months of using 50% of a full-time resource to develop a final formula, followed by an additional 6 months using 20% of the resource's time for ongoing product development activities. The case study also revealed that the cost for simple labelling changes to the ingredient listing or Nutrition Facts table associated with one product formula modification was more than $100,000 for the 14 stock-keeping units (SKUs) affected by the reformulation due to different package sizes or product variations. Other costs associated with sodium reformulation included plant trial production time, packaging costs, ingredient costs and consumer testing costs.

The survey and the case study revealed that, once the decision to reduce the sodium level of a product had been made, companies engaged a wide range of resources, including product development, marketing, sales, production and regulatory personnel. Given that these resources also develop, produce and market existing and new innovative products that are key to the economic viability of a company, their time must be carefully balanced between regular activities and sodium reduction activities.

The most common factors reported as helping the manufacturer/retailer group decide which products to reformulate are outlined in Table 2. Other considerations included whether the manufacturer co-packs the product, in which case the client controls sodium reduction efforts; the brand or the target consumer (e.g. healthier-for-you product lines take priority over other product lines); the availability of alternatives to salt that not only have the proper functionality but also are reasonably priced; production volume (i.e. reformulation of high volume products would have a significant impact on sodium reduction); and competitors' activities.

Table 2: Most Common Factors Determining Product Priority for Sodium Reduction Efforts for Surveyed Manufacturers and Retailers

  • Ease of reduction or feasibility
    (cost less, take less time and/or have a higher chance of success in the marketplace)
  • Consumers acceptance/shelf life/product quality
    (acceptable to consumers while maintaining quality and an appropriate shelf life)
  • Products already undergoing reformulation/renovation
  • Products high in sodium

Although not as varied, the foodservice operators also reported a number of factors influencing the priority for sodium reduction efforts (Table 3), with availability of low sodium inputs being the most frequently reported factor. While cost of these inputs was a consideration, the key to their use was the ability of the product to deliver the right flavour and functionality. Other determinants of sodium reduction priority were the ease and feasibility of reduction. Actions such as rinsing canned beans and vegetables before use and eliminating salt from foods cooked in-house that are combined with other ingredients that contribute salt to the final assembled food product were easily implemented. Targeting high volume food items that are used to create numerous food products also allows for a reduction across almost all food products.

Table 3: Factors Determining Product Priority for Sodium Reduction Efforts for Surveyed Foodservice Operators

  • Availability of lower sodium products
  • Ease and feasibility of reduction
  • Core items or those ordered frequently *
  • High sodium level
  • Part of recipe development/reformulation

Factors are presented in rank order of number of mentions.

* Includes products where volume and amount of sodium were used to determine which products would make the largest contribution to lowering the sodium intake of customers.

Most companies surveyed used the removal of salt as a strategy for lowering the sodium level of their foods. In addition, most companies reported decreasing the salt flavour of foods gradually or replacing it with other flavours like herbs and spices where possible, rather than using salt substitutes to maintain the perception of the same level of salt flavour. This is a positive way to accomplish sodium reductions as it helps lower people's desire for the flavour of salt. Incremental reductions in sodium will help make lower sodium food products more palatable to consumers, and will also make other foods that have not had their sodium levels reduced seem too salty and thus less appealing.

Challenges in sodium reduction

More than three quarters of the manufacturer/retailer group surveyed agreed that it is easier to lower sodium in some products than in others. Reformulations where sodium, usually in the form of salt, plays a technical or safety role are the most difficult. Examples of this include aged cheeses, where salt contributes to texture and flavour development, and cured meats, where salt creates a safety hurdle to microbial growth. It is also more difficult to produce an acceptable lower sodium version when the product has a simple flavour profile. For example, tomato juice, which contains only tomatoes, water and salt, is difficult to reformulate to be lower in salt without significantly changing its flavour. Foods with a complex flavour profile can be easier to adjust because they have more flavours that can be enhanced to help mask the loss of flavour that results from the decrease in salt.

More than half of the companies that participated in the survey indicated having products that would not be reformulated to be lower in sodium. The reasons for this were varied and included the following:

  • Safety and shelf-life issues;
  • Inability to successfully reduce the sodium level;
  • Customer expectations, especially in the case of low-cost products;
  • Issues around standards of identity;
  • Source of sodium is naturally inherent in the product;
  • Iconic brands where the perceived risk of consumer rejection is too great;
  • Products where salt is an integral part of the food (e.g. Salt & Vinegar chips);
  • Continuous production foods where change-over to a new formula would increase the cost of production;
  • Expense of new machinery that would be required;
  • Increase in cost of the product to the consumer.

Table 4 outlines the regulatory issues that were mentioned by the manufacturer/retailer group that participated in the survey. While almost half of this group reported experiencing regulatory issues during their sodium reduction efforts, only two foodservice operators reported issues, one of whom reported that being asked to lower sodium in the absence of defined targets was an issue and another who was unable to find a source for a low sodium version of a particular standardized food.

Table 4: Regulatory Issues Reported by Surveyed Manufacturers and Retailers

  • Additive not approved for use and takes too long to be approved (even if used in United States already)
  • Standardized food requirements prevent use of alternatives/formulation changes
  • 25% reduction required is too restrictive to communicate reduction efforts with consumers
  • Meat manual definition of salt does not allow use of alternatives
  • *Labelling tolerance of +/- 20%

Issues are presented in rank order of number of mentions.

* The normal variation of sodium in the product makes it difficult to stay within the allotted +/- 20% tolerance allowed; therefore, products are often labelled higher than they actually are to ensure compliance with the upper tolerance level.

Regulatory approval time for food additives and the prescriptive nature of standardized foods were the top two regulatory issues identified by the manufacturer/retailer group when trying to reduce sodium content. Findings from the case study are consistent with these results, where regulatory restrictions both on sodium replacement ingredients and on sodium claims and other labelling and advertising messages to consumers were mentioned as challenges.

One Health Canada initiative to help address the issue of food additive approval times for certain types of submissions is the policy on Priority Scheduling and Expedited Handling of Submissions that Have the Capacity to Enhance Food Safety. Under this policy, submissions for additives with a demonstrated capacity to enhance food safety will be given priority in Health Canada's evaluation queue. A petitioner may request that a safety evaluation of a submission for an additive that can be used to lower the sodium level of foods without compromising the safety of the food be considered for priority scheduling and expedited handling. Such requests will be considered provided there is supporting data in the submission demonstrating that the additive allows for the manufacture of a food with lower sodium levels.

Furthermore, a new framework for legally enabling the use of approved food additives was implemented in 2012 under the Food and Drugs Act. This new framework is more efficient because ministerial regulations (Marketing Authorizations, or MAs) can now enable access to food additives. There are 15 Lists of Permitted Food Additives (classified according to their technical role), each of which is incorporated by reference into an MA that sets out the conditions and the legal foundation for the use of the list.

While some standardized foods do make allowance for the use of salt substitutes to lower their sodium levels, those mentioned during the survey as being hindered by the prescriptive nature of their standards of identity were ketchup, natural cheeses and beans.

In addition to regulatory issues, the survey and the case study identified other issues and challenges related to sodium reduction (Table 5).

Table showing Additional Sodium Reduction Issues and Challenges Identified by the Food Industry
Table 5: Additional Sodium Reduction Issues and Challenges Identified by the Food Industry
Consumer acceptance
  • Consumer rejection of, or low demand for, lower sodium products
  • Unfamiliar or chemical-type names in the ingredient list
  • Inability to inform consumers about incremental sodium reductions
Cost and resources
  • Cost associated with lowering sodium levels
  • Competing product development and/or nutrition priorities
  • Large number and range of products requiring sodium reduction
  • Product development and production managed outside of Canada
  • Lack of availability of technical expertise and resources internally and/or externally (e.g. with suppliers)
  • Lack of business or management support
Safety and technical issues
  • Flavour issues or textural changes with reformulated products
  • Critical role of sodium in the product (e.g. food safety)
  • Shelf-life issues
  • Product sodium level is already at the lowest feasible level
  • Lack of viable, functional, cost-effective sodium replacements
  • Product characteristic changes that do not meet consumer acceptance and/or other business requirements

One foodservice operator mentioned having to rely on substitutes and alternatives available from current suppliers to lower the sodium level of products because of lack of time to review numerous other suppliers that might carry lower sodium products. The time and effort required to source lower sodium products are also an issue for larger companies that use a wider range of suppliers. Therefore, the creation of a supplier directory that contains information on products or inputs that are lower in sodium was suggested as a valuable tool that would save companies time and money.

Lessons learned

Insights from AAFC's industry survey and case study offer considerations and possible opportunities that can help offset the challenges associated with sodium reduction efforts.

For example, companies can determine the priority of products to be selected for sodium reduction by considering factors such as:

  • Consumer characteristics (e.g. driven by health and wellness and/or product taste);
  • Product sodium content
    • Sodium level per serving (what consumers see; the "room" for reduction);
    • Sales volume (impact across the marketplace);
  • Technological feasibility
    • Role of sodium - providing a technical function versus flavour profile to the product;
  • Products with low technological hurdles (minor product characteristic changes and/or within production specifications);
  • Resource efficiency
    • Products that are being reformulated for quality or productivity improvements;
    • Whether knowledge and experience are transferable among products;
  • Business costs versus return on investment.

Other product development and nutrition priorities need to be considered when planning sodium reduction efforts. If the anticipated changes are not likely to be noticeable to consumers, then sodium reductions can be integrated with other product reformulations (including productivity, quality improvements, line extensions and new product launches). Bundling reformulations in this way can be efficient for cross-functional resource management. However, if consumers could have a negative response to several changes being made at once, bundling reformulations can complicate the product development process because it would be difficult to figure out which of the changes triggered the reaction. All development work could then be stalled while the issue is being resolved. In such cases, a stand-alone sodium reduction project would likely be more effective.

In the initial phases, simple reductions that can bypass bench top testing and proceed directly to plant trial runs can reduce research and development costs and resources; plant run costs can also be offset if the final product is saleable.

Making reductions that fall within the labelling tolerance levels for compliance when there is no concern for consumer health and safety allows continued use of current labels. This strategy permits sodium label changes to be coordinated with scheduled label redesigns. For example, with a 5% reduction per year in sodium, a label design could occur every second year and yield significant cost savings while helping to ensure that sodium reduction remains a priority. It may also be beneficial to wait one or two years for consumers to adapt to a new flavour profile before reducing sodium levels further. The benefits of making smaller, incremental changes need to be weighed against the potential to make nutrient content claims and other nutrition labelling claims when the sodium reductions are greater. The growing trend among consumers to use information in the Nutrition Facts table to make food purchase decisionsFootnote 5 can also help to maintain sodium reduction as a corporate nutrition priority.

Other factors that can affect the success of sodium reduction efforts are transferable learnings from previous sodium reduction reformulations, and availability of supplier support and expertise.

Conclusion

Further reduction of sodium in Canadians' diets should be achievable with ongoing integrated efforts in research, education and modifications to the food supply as outlined in the Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada. New research will facilitate the reduction of sodium in foods. Increased awareness and acceptance of sodium-reduced products by consumers will generate more requests for these products. This, in turn, will encourage the ongoing sodium reduction efforts of the Canadian food industry and expand the availability of low sodium choices.

Health Canada resources


Contact us

To learn more about policy and regulatory issues affecting Canada's food industry, visit the Food Processing Innovation and Regulations web collection or contact the Sector Development and Analysis Directorate at SDAD-DDAS@agr.gc.ca.


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