“Nestlé will increase the number of foods and beverages across its global portfolio that could reasonably fit into a dietary pattern that contains less than 2,000 milligrams [2 g] of sodium per day,” it announced last week.
Currently, 43% of the firm’s foods meet this target, which is in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations – and 300 milligrams below current US dietary guidelines.
More controversially, the company also publicly backed the introduction of voluntary guidelines on sodium levels in packaged food. Mars did the same earlier this year.
“We are committed to constantly improving the nutritional profile of our products, but we also recognise that effective solutions to public health challenges require broad, multi-stakeholder efforts,” said Paul Grimwood, chairman and CEO at Nestlé USA.
“We encourage our industry colleagues, along with others in both the private and public sector, to join forces and combine our varied expertise to help people move toward healthier eating patterns, including a diet lower in sodium," he added.
The US has been mulling over salt content rules for years. A decade of delays prompted the Centre for Science in the Public Interest to sue the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last autumn in a bid to force through targets.
Average salt intakes in the US remain “stubbornly high”, CSPI argued, proof enough that leaving it to industry to gradually reduce content through reformulation isn’t working.
The FDA told FoodNavigator-USA in October that voluntary targets are being developed, but there was no indication of when they might be published.
The Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA) has said studies by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine need to be completed before creating any industry-wide guidelines. That may well take us to 2018.
A risky move or the right time to act?
Nestlé and Mars, it seems, have had enough and are taking matters into their own hands. Some might see this as a risk, given that the companies are breaking ranks with the GMA. But both have made it clear that this is the way to go. “It’s the right time to engage in the debate”, Mars said last month.
Indeed, the court case with CSPI this summer could see the FDA finally make its move. However, both firms are clearly looking further afield than the US. Following the WHO guidelines is an astute move, which will put both ahead of most local guidelines.
The 2 g guideline (2,000 mg) for sodium equates to 5 g of salt. Most people consume twice that amount, according to WHO, which has set a target to cut salt intake by 30% by 2025. No European country is on track to meet that.
The UK was the first country to establish comprehensive salt targets. Research published last summer suggested the voluntary scheme is working, but campaigners remain unconvinced – a study published in March showed that some products now have 186% more salt than a decade ago.
It won’t be easy to wean people off salt. Mars’ new Health and Wellbeing Ambition is recognition of this: some of its authentic recipes are higher in salt, fat and sugar, which is why it has moved to label foods which should be eaten occasionally rather than everyday.
Nestlé has been reformulating products to help cut sodium, sugar and fat from its brands. Recipes are tested and retested until 60% of consumers prefer it to a competitor’s offering. Between 2005 and 2012, sodium was cut by 22.7% in its food portfolio. A further 8% reduction since then has put it within touching distance of its own 10% target by the end of this year.
FoodNavigator is hosting an online event on Obesity and Weight Management on 25 May where the issues will be debated by top industry players, academics, nutritionists and public health campaigners.
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