We all know too much sodium in our diet can be bad for our health. It can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and more. The U.S. dietary guidelines made specific recommendations last year for African Americans to reduce their intake. But why is it so hard to cut back?
There are a number of reasons the habit is hard to shake, including the fact that fast food and processed food and restaurant food contain lots of the stuff.
But even when companies try to reduce the sodium in foods, they run the risk of changing the flavors we like (we hate when they do that), and, charging us more. So we don't buy them. These are not great strategies for food companies to pursue in a recession, says Kantha Shelke, a chemist who runs the food science consulting company Corvus Blue in Chicago.
Food companies rely on salt for both flavor and its ability to prevent spoilage. And they use it a lot.
"There are three ingredients one can use when you're a really lazy food product developer: salt, fat and sugar," Shelke says. Salt brings out flavor and can suppress off-notes, such as bitter and metallic, so its used frequently in processed foods.
(Geek note: Sodium and salt are not the same, although they are used somewhat interchangeably when we talk diets. Sodium is a component of table salt (NaCl), and accounts for about 40 percent of the salt we consume. We need a minimum of 1,500 mg of sodium a day, but most Americans get about three times that amount.)
A simple way to reduce sodium in your diet is to cut it out, then gradually add it back in. In fact, consumers who do this for just three weeks "find it difficult to go back to regularly salty foods," Shelke says.In other words, we can essentially retrain our palates.
But, like quitting smoking, it takes a lot of discipline to go cold turkey on the salt.
Food companies, under the gun to help address health problems, have been trying to find ways to reduce sodium but still retain the taste of their popular foods.
That's because we don't like feeling deprived, like we're eating cardboard. "People don't like their food to be messed with," Shelke says.
Popular corporate strategies include adding salt only to the finished product, like on top of a chip or cracker. But what might work for Ritz Crackers doesn't work for Swanson's chicken noodle soup.
One way to lower sodium in liquids is to add more flavor, like tomato extracts, or moving to aseptic packaging as opposed to cans, which can reduce the need for salt as a preservative, Shelke says.
But more flavor and fancy packages add to the costs, and companies worry that consumers are not in the mood to pay more for food.
A recent survey by the Food Marketing Institute of more than 2,000 shoppers nationwide backs that up. "Shoppers' emphasis on price and value is causing a decline in nutritious eating," it says.
In fact, the survey says only 39 percent of the general population is "very concerned" about eating a healthy diet right now, although there's a slight uptick in recognition by shoppers about the importance of sodium content in foods.
So what's a consumer to do? Read the labels, for starters.
But don't rely too heavily on them, either. Even when we try to eat better, we can be thwarted, or at least confused, by food labels.
The iconic Campbell Soup Company recently settled a $1 million lawsuit over claims that the tomato soup it sells with the label "25 percent less sodium" for a premium price was deceptive because the soup contains the same amount of sodium as the regular version.
The company says the claim met legal requirements and that the sodium levels were lower than a range of its regular soups. But it settled, nonetheless, to "avoid the expense and the inconvenience associated with litigation," according to a statement.