EDITOR'S BLOG: Sodium: 'somewhere in the middle'

by Bryan Salvage
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During the past year, Meat&Poultry and www.meatpoultry.com have published numerous articles about the importance of sodium, as well as the consumer trend to restrict excessive intake. There’s no disputing that too much sodium isn’t healthy and that meat and poultry product formulations should not contain excessive amounts. On the other hand, demonizing sodium and all but eliminating it from prepared foods formulations and menu items could cost processors and foodservice outlets many good customers.

There’s no question a lot of confusion about sodium and sodium intake still exists (Sodium intake guidelines questioned), which further muddies the waters.

But it’s safe to assume that many consumers, particularly younger ones, “get it” when it comes to sodium intake. It may be a little tougher for older consumers to change their habits. Many older Americans can testify when they were growing up that not only would salt be amply included in products at retail and in foodservice, but salt was shaken liberally onto meals at home, particularly meat – oftentimes before even tasting it.

Thankfully, those days are gone, but I still occasionally eat a retail meat or poultry product that is excessively salty. Several years ago after conducting a plant tour and corporate interviews at a major poultry processing company, I purchased a variety of new entrées the company proudly launched in recent years.

When I got home, I was eager to try these entrées but was very surprised at how salty these products were. My wife, who is very sensitive to sodium, took one bite and couldn’t eat any more. So, we opened and prepared another entrée hoping for a different result, but it, too, was extremely salty. As a result, we ended up pitching the rest of the entrées.

I have to wonder if this company, which is a very successful multinational processor, conducted third-party consumer panel tastings during development. If they did, the panel/s clearly would have scored the high amount of sodium as a negative, which should have raised red flags in product development.

Several years later, the same thing happened while visiting a specialty sausage processor. He had a retail store on premises, from which I purchased a number of products to take home. Despite winning numerous awards throughout the world for his products, many were extremely salty — and as a result, many were also discarded.

But the pendulum ended up swinging radically the other way one night about a year ago while my wife and I dined at a major family-style restaurant chain we used to frequent. She liked their Chicken Alfredo and I liked their Chicken Tenders, which up until that night were consistently delicious. When we each took our first bite, we looked at each other in great surprise and disappointment. Neither of us could taste a hint of sodium in our entrée or side dishes — which made both orders highly unappetizing.

I asked our server if they had a new cook learning the ropes in the kitchen or if the chain recently reformulated its menu featuring less sodium to be “better for you.” She immediately blushed so I could tell she knew, but she feigned ignorance. Despite constantly getting emails containing money-off coupons trying to lure us back for dinner, we never did return to that restaurant and probably won’t.

Here’s hoping processors and restaurants focus more on the sensory aspects of sodium when testing future new product offerings. Simply slashing the sodium and calling it more healthful might entice a person to buy or order such a product once, but that will be the last sale that product will likely get from many customers. Being better for you is important, but doesn’t mean a thing if it doesn’t taste good.

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