Foodmakers at work on healthier fare

  • Article by: STAFF and WIRE REPORTS
  • Updated: January 31, 2011 - 9:17 PM

The food industry says it already has been trimming saturated fat, sodium and calories and adding fiber to many of its products.

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This house brand low-sodium tomato soup is among the offerings at Trader Joe’s in St. Louis Park.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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The latest set of nutritional guidelines received sweeping support from the packaged-food and grocery industries. But some experts question whether the government's recommendations are effective at communicating with consumers about healthy eating.

First Lady Michelle Obama's partnership with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., they say, and TV shows such as "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" may get more attention from consumers.

"That's the way to communicate how to eat better in 2011," said Phil Lempert, a grocery industry consultant. "Dietary guidelines are how to communicate in 1970."

This time around "people are going to care a lot less," Lempert said. "They come out every five years, and there don't appear to be any big surprises." For example, most Americans already know to watch their sodium intake, he added.

The food industry has been cutting saturated fat, sodium and calories from products for several years. More recently, companies have begun adding nutrients such as fiber and antioxidants. This is partly in response to a variety of factors including consumer requests and expectations of new government guidelines.

Major food retailers and manufacturers issued statements Monday backing the federal government's recommendations.

Foodmakers say they've already been working to make products healthier.

Indeed, Golden Valley-based General Mills, maker of Yoplait yogurt and Bugles salty snacks, late last year announced that it had boosted whole grains, cut salt and sugar and made other healthful changes to products that amounted to 25 percent of its U.S. food sales. And since the federal dietary guidelines were last revamped in 2005, items that represent nearly 60 percent of the company's U.S. retail sales have been nutritionally improved.

"We have taken steps to reformulate our products to help consumers meet these guidelines," General Mills said in a statement.

Minnetonka-based Cargill, one of the largest U.S. salt producers, didn't find any big surprises in the dietary guidelines' salt intake recommendations.

"I really don't think the statement was anything new," said John Franklin, a marketing manager with Cargill salt. The dietary guidelines "reiterated" 2,300 milligrams per day of salt as the maximum for many Americans, he noted.

Cargill also works with the nation's big food manufacturers to help them retool their products for nutritional reasons, such as reducing salt without effecting taste. "The food manufacturers, our customers, anticipated this coming," Franklin said of the dietary guidelines.

Hormel Foods Corp. of Austin, Minn., emphasized how its pork and turkey products are in synch with the new guidelines. "The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans highlight the importance of consuming a balanced diet, including nutrient dense foods such as meat and poultry," Julie Craven, Hormel's vice president of corporate communications, said in a statement.

While Hormel sells myriad lean, fresh meats, the maker of Spam and Dinty Moore stew also has products that are relatively high in salt and fat. Still, the company has taken steps to improve its health profile in recent years. Since 2008, it has cut sodium by 13 percent and 24 percent, respectively, in its Compleats shelf-stable meals and Hormel chili.

Wal-Mart said it looks forward to working with the government "to make healthier food more accessible for millions of Americans, while making these choices more affordable for our customers."

Kraft Foods Inc. cited previously announced plans to reduce sodium in its foods by an average 10 percent by 2012 and its plans to double whole grains across its Nabisco products by 2013.

ConAgra Foods Inc. also reiterated its efforts to cut sodium from a broad range of products. The company said its Healthy Choice entrees can aid in controlling food portions, timing four new Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers meals with the USDA's announcement Monday. ConAgra also said its Hunt's line of canned tomato products could help consumers eat more from the red and orange subgroup of vegetables.

Sales growth of healthier products have been outpacing conventional foods, said Mark Andon, vice president of nutrition at ConAgra. He noted Healthy Choice sales increased at a double-digit rate for the 12-week period ended Jan. 16.

Chicago Tribune staff writer Emily Bryson York and Star Tribune staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.

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