Kraft Heinz on the ‘constant balance’ of salt reduction: ‘We can’t go too fast, or too slow’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: GettyImages/Thinglass
Pic: GettyImages/Thinglass

Related tags: Kraft, Heinz, Ketchup, Salt reduction

The beans and ketchup manufacturer employs two key strategies to cut salt in its core products, Kathy La Macchia, Head of Nutrition, Consumer Science and Culinary at Kraft Heinz EMEA tells FoodNavigator, “and we’ve had some huge successes”.

Kraft Heinz is regarded the fifth-largest food and beverage company in the world. In addition to brands Kraft and Heinz, the business owns more than 20 others, including Philadelphia Cream Cheese, and Primal Kitchen.

Perhaps the most iconic products in the Kraft Heinz portfolio, however, remain family favourites Heinz Beans, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, and Heinz Tomato Soup.

They are also among the longest standing: Heinz (which was established in 1876 and merged with Kraft in 2015) first launched its Tomato Ketchup product in 1876, its Baked Beans in 1901, and Tomato Soup in 1910.

The company is also playing the long game with these products’ nutritional profiles.

“We’ve been focusing on salt and sugar reduction since the mid-1980s,” ​said Head of Nutrition, Consumer Science and Culinary at Kraft Heinz EMEA, Kathy La Macchia, during FoodNavigator’s Salt Reduction webinar last week​. “It’s a continuous journey, we know it’s not an easy journey, and it’s [one] that takes a bit of time.”

‘Doing good by stealth’

Salt consumption is too high in many developed countries. In the UK alone, it is recommended that people consume no more than 6g per day, but in reality, Brits consume 8.1g per day.

Lowering salt intake to the recommended level could have a dramatic impact on public health: it is estimated that the number of strokes would decrease by 22% and heart attacks by 16%.

With the majority of sodium intake (70-75%) coming from processed foods, and just 10-15% coming from either naturally occurring sodium in unprocessed foods or from salt added during cooking or eating, food companies are under pressure to act.

salt reduction jirkaejc
The majority of salt intake can be linked to processed foods. Pic: GettyImages/jirkaejc

Kraft Heinz has been ‘acting’ for close to 30 years now. With two key strategies, the business continues to lower both salt and sugar levels in these core products.

The first strategy, La Macchia explained, is centred around reformulation. Since the 1980s, the business has been incrementally reducing the content of salt and sugar. “We’ve had some huge successes,” ​La Macchia told listeners.

“We can’t go too fast. If you [do], the consumer will pick up straight away that you’ve taken too much out of their iconic products, and they will not prefer it to other products.

“If you go too slow, then you can be seen by fellow nutritionists and by regulators to not be moving fast enough. It’s a constant balance to try and deliver what we know is right to do, and do it in a way that the consumer does not necessarily notice the amount of salt you have taken out in a short period.”

Kraft Heinz refers to this strategy as ‘doing good by stealth’. Across the industry, the concept can elsewhere be known as ‘health by stealth’.

The strategy has rewarded Kraft Heinz with some impressive statistics over the past three decades. “Here in the UK and Europe in particular, if we look at Heinz Baked Beans, we have taken out 52% salt in our standard core product since the mid-80s,” ​we were told.

Heinz Tomato Soup has seen a 62% drop in salt over the same timeframe, and the company’s Spaghetti Hoops, have had 60% salt removed.

heinz soup Thinglass
Heinz Tomato Soup has seen a 62% drop in salt since the mid-80s. Pic: GettyImages/Thinglass

Concerning Heinz Tomato Ketchup, La Macchia stressed that the product sits in a very different category to the company’s bean and soup offerings.

In contrast to these ‘meal-based’ products, Tomato Ketchup is a sauce. This means, she elaborated, that it is consumed in small amounts as a ‘taste boost’.

“So when you start playing with salt reduction in a category like sauces, it’s a really find balance, because you need to make sure you meet the expectations of taste for the consumer, but it’s a constant balance between the amount of sugar, the amount of acidity, the amount of salt, to make sure we deliver the perfect flavour that the consumer wants to add, as a condiment, onto their [meal].”

Despite this challenge, La Macchia reported a ‘huge success story’ on Heinz Tomato Ketchup as well. “We’ve reduced our salt levels by 40% over the last 30 years.”

Innovation and consumer choice

Kraft Heinz’s second salt and sugar reduction strategy focuses more heavily on innovation. This strategy, the Head of Nutrition, Consumer Science and Culinary explained, helps offer consumers more choice.

Alongside the company’s core range, Kraft Heinz has developed ‘salt reduced’, ‘no added sugar and salt’ and ‘50% less sugar’ versions of the classics.

“If we look at our ketchup, for example, our standard ketchup has about 1.8g salt per 100g. In 2017, we produced a tomato ketchup with 50% less salt and sugar, which contributes to 0.9g salt per 100g,” ​we were told.

Concerning the ‘no added sugar and salt’ tomato ketchup, which Kraft Heinz launched in 2018, the product contributes to 0.06g salt. “This is another way that we’ve been able to offer consumers a different choice in the products [available].”

The company has followed a similar strategy for its beans portfolio and has noticed healthy growth in uptake over the years. Beans products that are marketed as containing less sugar and salt now contribute to 23% of total beans sales.

heinz beans bahadir-yeniceri
Heinz Beans products that are marketed as containing less sugar and salt now contribute to 23% of the business’ total beans sales. Pic: GettyImages/bahadir-yeniceri

For La Macchia, this suggests consumers are ‘going along the journey’ with Kraft Heinz, as they improve their products’ nutrition profiles. “As an industry, we’re starting to reduce salt and sugar, the consumer is getting used to that level of salt and sugar as well, and are going along that journey with us.”

‘Unlocking the next generation of technologies’

Moving forward, La Macchia acknowledged ‘there are a lot of challenges’. In Kraft Heinz’s recently published Environmental Social Governance (ESG) Strategy & Goals report, the business has committed to continue to reduce salt and sugar in its products by 2025.

Specifically, the company has committed to achieving 85% compliance with Kraft Heinz Global Nutrition Targets, pledged to reduce total sugar in its products by more than 60 million pounds across its global portfolio, and says it will reduce sodium by an additional 5% in its BBQ Sauce and Kraft Salad Dressings in North America – all by 2025.

To help achieve these targets, Kraft Heinz partners with food research and technology experts to investigate “the technical enablers that we will be able to leverage moving forward”, ​La Macchia explained. To do this, “we really need to unlock the next generation of technologies”.

Such technologies could help to engineer a product’s texture, for example, so as to contribute to the perception of salt, while still maintaining taste, mouthfeel, and product stability.

The end goal is not, however, to replace a product’s salt content one-to-one with a salt-like substance. “We don’t want to replace one salty tasting product with necessarily the same level or perception of salt,” ​La Macchia highlighted. “We want to bring the consumer down in their liking of salt.”

Ultimately, as a nutritionist, La Macchia would ‘love’ to have products containing zero salt, without necessarily any salt replacers. “We’ve used technologies, like potentially fermentation or other techniques, where we’ll be able to deliver the flavour and that taste the consumers are desiring, without having to add anything of a salt nature to replace it.

“That would be my goal, as a nutritionist working in the industry.”

FoodNavigator’s webinar on Salt Reduction was broadcast on 23 September 2020.

 The full panel discussion, including input from Kathy La Macchia, Head of Nutrition, Consumer Science and Culinary at Kraft Heinz EMEA, Rianne Ruijschop, Group Leader, Food Product Technology at NIZO, Sonia Pombo, Public Health Nutritionist and Campaign Manager at Action on Salt, and Sebastian Emig, Director General at the European Snacks Association, can be heard on-demand for three months.

 To listen to this free webinar, please register here​.

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