Public health officials say Americans consume too much sodium in their daily diet, and they have tagged processed meats, among other food items, as part of the problem. However, processors and other food companies are stepping up to be part of a healthy solution.

Prominent factors driving low-sodium objectives include initiatives aimed at improving child nutrition, coupled with the rising purchasing power of Baby Boomers who are intensely focused on health and wellness issues, according to Ron Ratz, director of Protein Development for Wixon, St. Francis, Wis. Unlike other food-related issues, sodium reduction has had staying power among food companies.

“Much like trans-fats or things of that nature, you see the surge and then things taper off in time,” Ratz says. “With reduced sodium, we have not seen anything tapering off in terms of it being a strategic objective for processors.”

Dubious distinction

Processed meats have taken a hit from public-health officials for contributing to Americans’ over-consumption of sodium. In a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, researchers found that mean daily sodium consumption of US consumers was 3,266 mg, excluding salt added at meal times. The amount exceeds the 2,300 mg recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines also recommend 1,500 mg for specific groups — persons with diabetes and hypertension, persons older than 51, non-Hispanic blacks and persons with chronic kidney disease.

The CDC found that cold cuts and cured meats accounted for 5.1 percent of the salt that an average American eats in a day, while fresh and processed poultry accounted for 4.5 percent. Fast-food hamburgers and sandwiches accounted for 4 percent of salt intake in a day, while meat mixed dishes accounted for 3.2 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively. Bread and rolls were the source of the most sodium intake at 7.4 percent, mostly because Americans eat a lot of those items.

Hearing the call

Processed-meat manufacturers and ingredient makers have embraced the challenge of reducing sodium in processed meats. The industry can claim some success given the high volume of product launches in the category. But the success has not come easily.

“The challenge is pretty big, mainly because salt is really irreplaceable from a taste, cost and functionality standpoint,” says Dafne Diez de Medina, Ph.D. and vice president of Innovation, Research and Development for Lombard, Ill.-based Innova, which produces a reduced-sodium hydrolyzed vegetable protein ingredient. “It’s a unique ingredient.”

Nevertheless, 2011 saw many meat companies pledging to cut the sodium in their products without compromising flavor and quality. As Diez de Medina points out, taste is key in sodium reduction.

“The product has to taste good, otherwise it doesn’t matter what level of sodium you have,” she says.

Kayem Foods in Chelsea, Mass., developed the Lean Frank, which is made from premium cuts of chicken, has 45 percent less sodium, 75 percent less fat and 50 percent fewer calories than a traditional hot dog.

“The greatest challenge we faced with the Lean Franks was the texture and taste,” says Bob Kufferman, Kayem senior brand manager. “Many lower-fat/calorie franks are too gummy, lack the snap of franks and also don’t quite taste the same as traditional hot dogs. We worked hard to develop a frank that is made from premium cuts of chicken meat, while making sure it tastes like what you’d expect a good-quality hot dog to taste like.”

Butterball LLC, Mount Olive, N.C., is one of several companies to partner with the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), which was launched to reduce salt in packaged and restaurant foods by 25 percent by 2014 – an achievement that would help cut the nation’s salt intake by 20 percent. In 2011, the company announced plans to reduce the sodium levels of turkey ham and turkey pastrami by 20 percent by 2012. Sodium in the remaining deli products will be reduced on average by 10 percent, which will exceed 2014 goals. Butterball reduced sodium in 18 deli products across Butterball’s Original line.

Companies such as Philadelphia-based Dietz & Watson, Boar’s Head Provisions Co. in Sarasota, Fla., Black Bear European Style Deli, Philadelphia, Premio in Rochelle Park, NJ, Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Heinz, Kraft Foods in Northfield, Ill., Rotterdam, Netherlands-based Unilever and Subway, Milford, Conn., are also part of the NSRI and have introduced low- or reduced-sodium meat products.

In April 2011, Subway announced that the company cut sodium in its Subway Fresh Fit Sandwich choices by 28 percent. Elizabeth Stewart, Subway marketing director who oversees all sustainability and wellness efforts, said then that the company did extensive consumer and market testing to ensure that the sodium reductions did not affect taste, texture or food quality.

At Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, 96 percent of the company’s current products meet or exceed federal mandates for school lunches regarding caloric, lower-sodium and meat/meat alternate requirements. Shawnee Mission, Kan.-based Seaboard Foods began reducing sodium in the company’s PrairieFresh line of fresh pork products in 2010. The sodium content for a 4-oz. serving of unseasoned PrairieFresh Prime pork loin was lowered to 280 milligrams (mg) — which is a 26 percent sodium reduction — while maintaining flavor.

Smithfield Foods Inc., Smithfield, Va., reduced sodium in its marinated pork category by an average of 25.5 percent in 2011. The company also reduced sodium in its other processed meats categories by an average of 8.2 percent.

Applegate Farms in Bridgewater, NJ, a processor of “natural” and organic meat and cheese products, offers a popular brand of chicken nuggets the company says is lower in sodium compared to traditional brands (210 mg vs. 470 mg per serving, for example).

“For Applegate, getting the sodium levels down on the chicken nuggets didn’t prove to be too challenging,” says Neil Leinwand, senior vice president of marketing at Applegate. “As with most of our products, the lower sodium levels are a happy by-product of not using artificial preservatives or fillers. For example, we don’t use sodium nitrates or other sodium-based preservatives in processing which tends to bump up sodium levels.”

Leinwand says the company continues to expand its portfolio of low-sodium options, including two new reduced sodium products, which will launch later in 2012.

Slow growth

Consumer perception about processed meats, lingering concerns about personal finances and interest in healthy eating are having an impact on the lunch-meat category, according to a study from Mintel Group Chicago, a consumer and market research firm. Sales in the lunch-meat category, valued at $12.6 billion, grew only 1.8 percent in 2011 — only 0.2 percent when adjusted for inflation, Mintel says.

“Category saturation ensures a robust consumer base,” the report states. “However, usage has seen no growth among households over the past few years. In fact, 32 percent of lunch-meat eaters are buying less prepackaged or deli-counter lunch meat/deli meat this year. The category is hurt by a fairly common consumer perception that these products are overly processed.”

Processors have made efforts to address these issues by introducing low-sodium, low-fat and American Heart Association-endorsed products, according to Mintel. One example is St. Cloud, Minn.-based GNP Company’s Just BARE line of retail meat products and deli program.

“Just BARE deli products carry many of the same attributes as for Just BARE retail products, which represent those that consumers who “think before they eat” are seeking — chickens raised for the brand are fed a vegetarian diet (no animal by-products); never, ever given antibiotics; and Just BARE has passed the rigorous standards of a third-party certifying organization for animal welfare —American Humane Certified Farm Program, backed by the American Humane Association,” the company says.

GNP Company is also a member of the Truthful Labeling Coalition, which means products that are enhanced in any way are not labeled ‘all natural’. Just BARE deli products contain sea salt and chicken broth, the company says.

“However, marination levels are lower than our traditional marinated deli products [150 mg vs. 530 mg per serving, for example] and the products contain no phosphates,” according to GNP Company.

Kraft Foods’ Oscar Mayer brand in May launched a new line of meats free of artificial preservatives, flavors and colors. The Oscar Mayer Selects line builds on the company’s successful Oscar Mayer Selects Hot Dogs, which were introduced in March 2010, the company said. The product represents Oscar Mayer’s initiative to have 50 percent of its new products made without artificial preservatives. Kraft says it also is making progress on sodium reduction across 20 percent of the entire Oscar Mayer portfolio by the end of 2012.

Communicating with consumers

Consumers increasingly want to know how the food they eat is made and the ingredients that go into their food. Some processors have capitalized on consumers’ desire for more food knowledge as an opportunity to spread the word about the low-sodium attributes of their products.

Applegate Farms says a concerted effort is made to communicate with consumers to ensure they know the process starts at the farm.

“In the processing steps, Applegate uses no artificial ingredients, preservatives or fillers,” Leinwand says. “Over the last 25 years, we’ve communicated with consumers mostly through packaging, labeling and public relations. This year we are experimenting with an integrated marketing program in select test markets.”

Mintel Group says 2011 saw the most product launches for lunch meat, and 2012 is shaping up to be another year of product introductions that processors hope consumers will embrace. Product innovation will help drive the processed meat category to higher sales.

“We consider it important to offer choices to our consumers,” says Kayem’s Kufferman. “We do offer lower-sodium products and will continue to work with our suppliers to evaluate different types of ingredients including sodium that are incorporated into our retail and foodservice products.

“The challenge is to continue to provide our customers with a range of great-tasting products that they will share with their families and recommend to their friends,” he adds.