Menu Innovations | December 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Salt Shakers

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Through it all, “we never jeopardized flavor to create a healthy product.”

The company has at least a dozen sodium-savvy items. The Joey Jr. burrito is a flour torilla with chicken, black beans, rice, cheese, and pico de gallo. It has 714 mg of sodium. The Funk Meister taco features a soft flour tortilla, chicken, cheese, pico de gallo, and shredded lettuce, and it checks in at 630 mg sodium.

Moe’s is not through, however; it’s looking to cut sodium even further from items such as ground beef and queso.

All of this was done quite quietly, and customers didn’t notice.

“There was zero fanfare,” says Stan Dorsey, vice president of research and development for Moe’s parent, FOCUS Brands. “It was the right thing to do.”

But Dorsey also knows that health claims can backfire. “There’s always a danger. When I was with a previous company we ran a special item and it did really well. Six months later we ran it again, saying it had no carbs, and the product died.”

To many marketers, salt reduction could do the same. So, not surprisingly, Taco Bell waited several months to mention it had secretly cut the sodium content in its menu items at Dallas-area restaurants by 23 percent.

Other companies are quietly plugging away at sodium reduction. Burger King, for instance, reduced sodium by a third in its most popular kids’ meal item, Chicken Tenders. It lowered sodium in several adult menu ingredients, too.

And no salt is added to Burger King’s best-known item, burgers, says spokeswoman Denise Wilson. A four-ounce ground beef patty naturally has less than 100 mg of sodium.

Burger King and many other operators offer small hamburgers, like the Whopper Jr., with sodium counts in the 500–650 mg range. However, regular burgers usually have considerably higher sodium levels, well in excess of 750 mg.

A number of companies have no qualms about their low sodium levels.

RedBrick Pizza, for instance, has been health conscious “from Day 1,” says president Jim Minidis. “When we started, we formulated our items to be healthier and lower in salt than any others out there.”

RedBrick uses fresh herbs, spices, and olive oil rather than salt, in some cases.

“It took quite a bit of time and development to come up with these recipes, but we were determined to make a great, healthy product,” he says.

Many typical pizza ingredients can be heavy in sodium: the crust, canned sauce, meat, and cheese. RedBrick’s sauce has 12 herbs and is organic, without preservatives. There’s no salt or salted butter in the dough, which is baked in a wood-fired oven.

Last year, the company introduced a whole-wheat, multigrain artisan crust made with açai berry, a fruit known for its antioxidant properties.

Meat toppings have been more of a challenge, because even organic meats can be high in sodium. So the company has had to search harder to find what it wants, such as a high-quality, Italian-imported prosciutto, which doesn’t need salt to pump up the taste.

The 9-inch Pizza Bianco with açai crust (660 mg of sodium) features Ricotta and Mozzarella cheese, sausage, mushrooms, roasted pine nuts, olive oil, and garlic sauce. Several Fhazani flatbread sandwiches have sodium counts less than 450 mg.

Meanwhile, Subway, also known for its health-conscious menu, announced this spring it cut the sodium by 15 percent in core sandwiches and 27 percent in its Fresh Fit sandwiches.

“We started working on our sodium reduction before it was in the forefront of industry interest,” says Lanette Kovachi, the company’s corporate dietician.

“It was something we wanted to do to be socially responsible and provide a healthier product for our customers.”

Cutting sodium “was definitely challenging,” Kovachi says.

“We looked at all of our components, breads, meats, and cheeses, and all of these by nature, especially the deli meats, are higher in sodium for flavor and for food safety reasons.”

Company chefs and food developers could only go so far with some ingredients, but sodium in bread (salt keeps bread from rising too quickly) was reduced 25 percent.

“The bread helps make Subway, the smell when you walk in, and the taste,” she says. “You don’t want the customer to notice you did anything to that.”

Several 6-inch subs priced less than $5, including the oven-roasted chicken and the roast beef menu items, are less than 700 mg of sodium.

Most of Subway’s salt-reduction focus has been on meats and breads, so there is still a “to-do list” for sodium reduction.

“We started where we could get the biggest bang for the buck, and now we are looking into sauces and other ingredients that are not as large to the overall sodium count,” Kovachi says. “We know customers expect us to keep getting better.”

Fries are also an area of concern for quick-serve brands looking to reduce sodium while maintaining bold tastes.

Statistics from Technomic found that Americans by more than a 2-to-1 ratio prefer their fries to be seasoned with pepper, Cajun spices, or other flavorings.

“It seems customers are willing to go out of their way for the fries they want,” says Kelly Weikel, consumer research manager at Technomic. And that’s important, since fries “are still the go-to side item” at most quick-service restaurants.

The nation’s biggest burger chains offer traditional french fries, while a number of other quick-service operations, including Checkers/Rally’s, Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, serve up seasoned varieties.

One of Arby’s long-time signature items is curly fries, a spiral-cut fry coated with a secret combination of salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and other savory seasonings.

“Youngsters find them really fun, and older adult eaters recognize us for having a very flavorful product that is unique in the quick-serve segment,” says Brian Kolodziej, vice president of product development and integration for Atlanta-based Arby’s.

The coating of seasonings not only provides a different taste, but it also helps keep the fries crisp and provides their color.

Wendy’s hoped to capitalize on the consumer’s love of french fries and increased interest in healthy eating when it debuted its fries made with sea salt in November 2010.

The fries are made from 100 percent Russet potatoes and sliced “natural style” with the skin on and fried in proprietary oil that’s trans fat free. Then they are dusted with natural sea salt.

According to company research, the new fries, which use less salt, were preferred over competitors’ fries by 56 percent of the public.

“We’ve listened intently to our customers and incorporated their feedback into our products,” says Ken Calwell, Wendy’s chief marketing officer. “The results from the taste test validate our efforts to deliver what our customers want—better tasting fries. And our fries are hot with a golden color and a real potato taste seasoned with sea salt.”