Nutrition | May 2016 | By Maggie Hennessy

Shaking the Salt

Amid new legislation in New York City, many brands are tinkering with recipes to cut back sodium—even though customers don’t particularly care.
Top QSR chains cut salt from menus for healthy nutritious food options.
Salata reduced sodium content by 8 percent in its protein marinade by replacing half the salt with potassium chloride. Salata

Almost everyone could benefit from a reduction in sodium intake, though it isn’t high on the list of concerns for most consumers when they dine out. Chains continue to tackle incremental sodium cuts, though, and it could prove prescient if moves like New York City’s—in which sodium warning labels are required at some restaurants—gain broader traction.

Nine out of 10 Americans consume more than the 2,300 milligrams (one teaspoon) daily-recommended sodium limit, according to recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, 60 percent of adults say they’re trying to cut down on or avoid sodium completely in their diets, according to The NPD Group. And sodium ranks third behind total calories and sugar as items consumers look for most on nutrition labels, with 37 percent of adults seeking it out.

But these numbers seem to go out the window when consumers go out to eat, which could partly explain why chains have been “a little slower” to move on sodium, says NPD Group food and beverage analyst Darren Seifer.

“Restaurants, like food manufacturers, respond to consumer demands,” he says. “And when consumers are going out to restaurants, lower sodium is not high on their demand list. Health in general, in fact, is not all that high when consumers are away from home.”

While fresh is important, convenience and taste are also big deciding factors when consumers choose a restaurant, which might just elbow out lower sodium, Seifer says.

Houston-based fast-casual salad chain Salata only received a handful of requests from consumers concerned about the sodium levels in its chicken. Nevertheless, the prospect of losing a corporate catering client looking to meet a minimum sodium requirement was a big motivator to change the recipe, says David Laborde, executive creative and purchasing director of the 53-unit chain. It also helps that the chain is nimble enough to easily tweak menu items.

“Probably 90 percent of our menu items are just natural raw products like lettuce, tomato, and carrots, so we lend ourselves to a very transparent and healthy menu,” Laborde says. “And because we have a central commissary and make all our own sauces and dressings, we decided to take a look at our menu and find areas where we can make slight tweaks that other brands might struggle with that could lead to dramatic improvements.”

As part of a $1 million “Fresh First” ingredient upgrade campaign, Salata replaced half the salt in its protein marinade with potassium chloride for an overall reduction of 8 percent sodium. It also upped the aromatics and spices.

“It was a challenge, because salt naturally enhances flavor and carries flavors like oregano and garlic throughout the meat,” Laborde says. “But you really can’t taste the difference.”

Yum! Brands takes a three-pronged approach to nutrition based on choice, transparency, and ingredient improvement. In addition to eliminating trans fats from cooking oils and cutting back on palm oil in recent years, the company—known for KFC fried chicken, Pizza Hut pizza, and Taco Bell Quesalupas—has made “significant cuts to sodium,” says Jonathan Blum, Yum’s chief public affairs and global nutrition officer.

Yum already reached its three-year goal of having 15 percent of the menu items at its three brands be at one-third the recommended daily allowance for the key nutrients, including sodium. Reductions have come through such moves as sourcing lower-sodium Mozzarella and dough at Pizza Hut and training employees and changing kitchen practices at all three brands.

Seifer says consumers’ concerns about sodium could increase in coming years, as aging baby boomers address heart health on a broader scale. (On the other end, the powerful Millennial purchasing segment isn’t thinking about heart health at all, he adds.)

Additionally, public health efforts like New York City’s law requiring restaurants with 15 or more locations to place warning labels on menu items with 2,300 milligrams or more of sodium could pressure chains to get more aggressive about cutting salt. The measure, which was supposed to go into effect March 1, has been delayed pending a judicial review requested by the National Restaurant Association.

Yum doesn’t support warning labels on high-sodium menu items, arguing that offering choice and education is more effective.

“Consumers don’t want to be shamed into their food choices,” Blum says. “They want to make educated decisions about the food they eat, and that information is readily available to anyone with a mobile phone or computer, or in many instances, in a brochure at the restaurant.”   

Seifer similarly wonders if sodium-warning labels even resonate with consumers, likening the move to the calorie-count mandate that takes effect at restaurant chains nationwide this December as part of the Affordable Care Act. In places where calorie labeling went into effect, the research shows that it had a negligible effect on consumption, Seifer says.

Consumers tend to respond better to positive cues like “good source of” or “high in,” as NPD has seen with the popularity surrounding protein, Seifer adds.

Laborde says part of the reluctance comes from the fact that posting calorie and sodium counts is scary for restaurant operators not wanting to drive customers away.

“You don’t want to scare guests away by posting the truth,” he says. “There’s the guest that’s still going to want that product because it tastes good. But now they’re more aware that they’re making an indulgent choice.”

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