Challenges in Nutrition [from Tufts Friedman Symposium]

We’re in Boston this weekend for 2 important nutrition events. Today we participated in Tufts University’s Friedman Symposium, and starting tomorrow we will be at FNCE, the American Dietetic Association’s annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo.

At the Friedman Symposium, we participated in the “Challenges in Nutrition” track, covering current events and topics at the intersection of food manufacturing, government policy, and public health. The speakers were from the food industry and not for profit groups.

The first two speakers were from Kraft and Unilever. Richard M Black, PhD, Vice President Nutrition, Kraft Foods – talked about Public Health and the Food Supply: Where Idealism and Practicality Collide

Dr. Black began with a few slides showing how Kraft is committed to taste and health: since 2005 over 5000 products have been reformulated to be healthier. It’s not simple because, according to Dr. Black, people will NEVER sacrifice taste. They’ll try a reformulated product once, but if they don’t like the taste, they won’t come back. The taste does not have to be the same but it has to be “equally preferred”.

Dr. Black then showed stats proving that the healthy lifestyle message has gotten through to consumers in the last 2 years, but consumers still lack the tactics of how to actually go about eating healthfully.

Taste is the biggest challenge for consumers. Kraft checked the importance consumers place on “taste vs. nutrition” per food type. While there was parity for breakfast foods, in snacks – taste is double in importance compared to nutrition.

Dr. Black presented another product line where Kraft has made improvement – the reduction of sugar in Capri Sun kids’ drink. Despite the reduced sugar,  kids love it. Kraft has a roadmap to reduce the sugar by an additional 50%.

We asked Dr. Black about Capri-Sun. By our book – the best drink for kids is tap water, not sugary drinks. So while Kraft is being efficient, we consumers need an effective solution in which our kids simply consume less sugary drinks. But it is hard when the kids are inundated with marketing messages about such products.

The answer we got was that kids will drink much less liquid if it is just water. It is ingrained in our culture and society that kids consume sweetened drinks. Bummer!!!

Dr. Black then discussed the challenges in sodium reduction – the biggest research effort going on in the food industry.

Salt is not just for flavor. It has other properties – for example, it reduces metallic aftertaste. It’s a preservative. it helps texture. For example, hot dogs without minimum salt level become mushy because there is nothing to bind them.

People also show aversion to products sold as low sodium. But when “Ritz low sodium” crackers changed their name to “Hint of Salt” – with the same formulation – the product became very successful!

Companies are facing dilemmas when it comes to sodium reduction. On a population level the best approach is a  gradual 25% reduction across the board for all products – this would drive down daily sodium consumption from  3300mg to 2600mg (By the way, this is still above the recommended 2300mg per day).

But for a food specific company, which has a certain limited portfolio, this may not always work. Kraft’s dilemma – how to prioritize its salt reduction efforts? They decided to do so by looking at the volume of sales of a product. Reducing 15mg per serving for a 100m lbs/year product is more impact-ful than a 200mg reduction for a product line selling just 3m lbs. But the critics will always use the 200mg not reduced product as the poster child for what Kraft is doing wrong. (We promise not to…)

The second speaker was Doug Balentine, PhD, Director, Nutrition Science, Unilever, who talked  about The New Responsibility of Food Industry in Health and Wellness. Dr. Balentine spoke of Unilever’s global responsibility for sustainable food sources. He then spoke about Unilever’s “Nutrition Enhancement Program” – a baby steps program for the brand portfolios.

He explained how removal of just one ingredient in a product causes a chain reaction of required changes. As an example he used Ragu pasta sauce. Ragu used corn syrup in the past, which added many grams of sugar without the same sweetness level of regular sugar. Now they’re just using plain table sugar. But corn syrup also acted as a thickener. So the food scientists added more tomatoes. As a result they needed to add less salt to reach a favorable flavor. The salt reduction was over 50% in the last 5 years. Today, the two largest brands, Ragu and Prego, with an 80% market share, are down from 800mg to 480mg. That is a HUGE change in the category.

Dr. Balentine explained that sometimes supply chains don’t exist to facilitate changes.  For example, there are  not enough cage free eggs on the market for a huge food processor to switch product lines. Interesting point.

There were several additional interesting discussions during the day. We’ll write about them separately.

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  • Carol

    Thanks for the good overview! It’s helpful for consumers and the media to know these background issues/realities when discussing/evaluating healthier food products.

  • Bill McNye

    I am pleasantly surprised by the Ragu example. Less salt, less sugar and more tomatoes? Can’t argue with that.

    Also, Ritz is onto something. Bill McNe, now with a hint of salt! Mmmm… I taste better already!