Salt Labeling: Confusingly Helpful

Labeling food to guide consumers to healthier choices is a tricky business. Ask Campbell’s, which had to execute a messy u-turn in 2011. Sales slumped when they went too far in reducing salt content for some of their soups and low-sodium claims backfired. A new study, though, suggests that deftly-executed salt labeling can help guide consumers to lower sodium choices, even though there’s some confusion along the way.

Mary L’Abbé from the University of Toronto and colleagues found that salt-related heath claims led people, especially those with hypertension, to view a packaged food as more healthful and one they would more likely purchase. But it didn’t really help their understanding of why less sodium might be a good idea. In fact, people assumed the products had health benefits that had nothing to do with sodium and hypertension.

“What we saw there was a halo effect [with the low-sodium claim],” said Christina Wong, lead author of the study. “They see a whole range of health benefits that are totally unrelated to the nutrient.”

Proceedings of a symposium on salt in the food supply, recently published in Nutrition Reviews, provide an excellent overview of the challenge:

Controversy still exists regarding the best strategy to lower blood pressure, and some experts believe that physiological regulation of sodium intake will undermine public health strategies based on alteration of the food supply. The most serious obstacle to the development of commercially successful lower-sodium foods is palatability, followed by a variety of factors in the area of food safety and functionality.

Clearly, there’s abundant potential for unintended consequences and failure. Tapping into food industry expertise through a collaborative, rather than confrontational, approach may be more likely to be successful.

Click here to read more at, click here to read more in Food Navigator, click here to read about the Campbell’s experience, click here to read the labeling study, and click here to read the proceedings on salt in the food supply.

Vitamin Brand Yams image © Boston Public Library / Flickr

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