Food makers face the big squeeze

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2011 - 10:26 AM

Can processed food taste just as good with less sugar and salt? The industry has little choice but to find out.

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A Hormel Foods technician in Austin, Minn., lined up three bowls side by side recently in a gleaming, stainless steel test kitchen -- part of a grand experiment in chili science.

The first bowl contained Hormel's signature chili, with about half the daily recommended dose of salt. The next had 25 percent less sodium; the third, 33 percent less.

They tasted the same.

For Hormel, this evolution is a high-stakes victory, one that demanded a big investment, hundreds of research hours, multiple tastings -- and an appetite for risk. If Hormel's chili loses its familiar taste, the company could lose millions in sales.

"These are complete reformulations," said Phillip Minerich, Hormel's vice president of research and development. "We look at every ingredient. ... It's very difficult and challenging."

Similar experiments are playing out in the labs of big packaged-food companies everywhere. The food industry is in a vise, one felt keenly in Minnesota, home of industry powers Hormel, General Mills and Cargill, a giant supplier of ingredients.

Regulators, nutritionists, even the first lady, say Americans need healthier choices amid an epidemic of obesity. They expect food producers to provide them, particularly by lowering sodium and sugar, ancient staples regarded now as potential public health scourges.

That's why Cargill is eyeing sugar and salt substitutes as part of a growing, lucrative healthier-ingredient market. It's also why General Mills has been hacking at salt in everything from Green Giant canned vegetables to Progresso soup and slashing sugar from its huge portfolio of breakfast cereals.

Companies such as General Mills and Hormel often say they're driven by consumers' desire for healthier options. While that's true, the ultimate yardstick for the food business is the bottom line, and its master is still taste.

Food companies often don't even tell shoppers about their salt and sugar reduction campaigns, fearing that such information would change perceptions of taste. "It has always been taste driven," Minerich said of the food business. "It has to sell in the marketplace."

In essence, the industry is trying to quietly fix dietary issues it helped create.

"The packaged foods and restaurant industries are putting (salt and sugar) into food, and that's what's causing the problem," said Gary Beauchamp, president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, an independent taste-research outfit in Philadelphia. "But they're making stuff that people like."

Sugar and salt overload

It's no secret that we are increasingly a nation of tubby folks and salt-o-holics. About 30 percent of Americans are obese, compared with 12 percent in the early 1960s.

Excessive sugar consumption, eating too much fat and lack of exercise are prime culprits in the nation's obesity overload. As for sodium, Americans consume about 50 percent more of it than they should, according to a 2010 report by the Institute of Medicine. In the medical community, excessive sodium intake is generally seen as a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.

The institute's report, done at Congress' behest, recommends the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set mandatory sodium standards, and that foodmakers -- the main source of added salt and sugar in American diets -- gradually reduce sodium in their products. The pressure on food and beverage makers is coming on other fronts, too. Michelle Obama has used her profile as first lady as a bully pulpit against obesity.

Proposals have surfaced across the country to tax soda and snacks. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest grocery chain, announced earlier this year that it plans to reformulate its store brands to make them healthier -- and it expects the same of its suppliers of packaged food.

"There's tremendous pressure on food scientists to make better, healthful foods without compromising on taste," said Roger Clemens, president of the Institute of Food Technologists, whose members are culled from industry, academia and government.

Or put another way, "Companies have to clean up their products or be held accountable," said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Of course, reformulation doesn't guarantee a product will be significantly healthier.

Suck sugar or corn syrup out of soft drinks and some foods and they can still lack nutrition. Salt can be cut, but some products are so riven with it to begin with that they remain sodium traps. And sugar or salt can be slashed, but a product can still be fattening.

"It's a good start," Brownwell said of the improvements. "But we haven't even come close enough so far."

Toward healthier chili

At Austin-based Hormel, salt is the quarry, and the company has a lot to stalk. For example, a two-serving can of Hormel's turkey chili, a product that hasn't been reformulated, contains a full-day's helping of sodium.

Still, Hormel says it has cut salt by 8 percent in a variety of products since 2008, including its Compleats microwave meals and its refrigerated entrees. Last year, it set a new goal: to reduce sodium on average by 15 percent from its entire portfolio by 2015.

The company has been targeting its venerable beef and bean chili -- a top-selling Hormel product -- for a salt overhaul.

With chili, as with many other packaged foods, salt plays a role beyond taste. It's a key binder that holds meat together. Take out too much salt, and the beef in chili would become meat slurry. Hormel's Spam would undergo a similar meltdown; too little sodium, and, voila, pork jelly.

Sodium helps make soups thicker, helps bread rise and extends shelf life. It does all that and more -- including, of course, enhancing taste -- at a low cost to foodmakers. The problem: salt can be hard to remove without screwing up texture or taste.

Minerich wouldn't get into the details of exactly how Hormel reduces sodium; it's top secret. Like most packaged-food executives, he won't talk about reformulation costs, either. But they can be substantial, and the work is time consuming.

"Reformulation is one big nuisance for a company," said Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food watchdog group that's pushed foodmakers for years to reduce salt.

And it can backfire. New Jersey-based Campbell Soup, long heralded as a leader in sodium reduction, recently said it would add back some salt it siphoned from its Select Harvest soup line over the past couple of years. The reason: To improve taste and thus jump-start sales.

Hormel has devoted plenty of resources to retooling just its beef chili. It assembled a team of 15 employees from myriad departments: purchasing, operations, cost accounting, marketing and, of course, research.

After a year of work and three rounds of consumer taste tests, the team delivered a product suitable for store shelves in February 2010. The new version has 900 milligrams of salt per serving, still almost 40 percent of the government's recommended daily salt intake, but a significant reduction nonetheless.

The firm's chili sales have remained strong, and Hormel executives say this suggests consumers didn't notice any difference. The company is now working on shaving another 100 milligrams of salt from its classic chili, and results so far are promising.

Secret science

Hormel, like most food companies, doesn't trumpet such gradual changes to consumers, taking a "stealth health" approach.

There's a niche for foods explicitly marketed as low-salt and low-sugar; Hormel, for example, sells a "Less Sodium" version of chili with 670 milligrams of salt. But it's hard to even find in some major supermarkets.

For the general shopping audience, knowledge of salt or sugar reductions could provoke concerns that a favorite food won't taste the same. "It could compromise the eating experience," said John Mendesh, vice president of research and development for General Mills' cereal division.

Golden Valley-based General Mills, a cereal giant and the nation's third-largest packaged foodmaker, has been working over the past six years to improve the healthiness of its products.

That includes taking on the tenacious two: sugar and salt. Breakfast cereal has both, and not just for taste. In fact, sugar imparts a toasty brown look rather than a dull beige pallor. It's critical, too, in staving off the soggies.

Cereal has been a prime target for General Mills' health efforts, particularly reducing sugar in brands aimed more at children, a hot-button marketing issue.

General Mills' stable of kid-oriented cereals includes Cocoa Puffs, Trix, Lucky Charms, Count Chocula and Reese's Puffs. Each had between 12 and 15 grams of sugar per serving in 2007. By 2010, General Mills had reduced sugar in all five brands to 10 grams per serving.

Now the company is working to reach single-digit grams of sugar in those cereals. But the more sugar -- or salt -- a company removes, the harder the task gets, Mendesh said. "There is a ceiling on what we can do."

Human beings are wired to love sugar and salt, and kids seem to crave sweet-tasting stuff more than adults, said Beauchamp of the Monell Institute. Sugar and salt are generally integral to human health, and we evolved in an environment where they were in short supply, Beauchamp said.

But nowadays, sugar and salt are in excess supply. "There is a terrible mismatch between the biological drive for things like sugar and salt and the cultural availability of them," Yale's Brownell said. "Biology gets overwhelmed by the modern food environment."

The soda challenge

Perhaps nowhere is that condition more glaring than in the beverage business.

Soda and sports and energy drinks are by far the biggest single source of added sugar in the American diet, according to federal dietary guidelines released earlier this year. And added sugar, which includes both white sugar and corn syrup, is a significant source of calories.

But a gradual sugar-reduction approach doesn't work as well in beverages as it does in food; the most minute changes tend to get noticed in iconic drink brands, industry analysts say. So, low-calorie beverage innovation often comes through brand extensions.

Minnetonka-based Cargill, in partnership with Coca-Cola, has developed one of the newer zero-calorie beverage additives -- Truvia. Derived from the leaves of the stevia bush, native to South and Central America, it's a natural product, free from the stigma that still dogs artificial sweeteners.

Cargill is a fast-growing sugar marketer, a big corn syrup producer and a major salt supplier. But the agribusiness giant also develops ingredients to help cut sugar, salt and fat. And makers of food and drink increasingly rely on suppliers such as Cargill to meet health challenges.

Truvia, launched in 2008, has become a top-selling packet sweetener, going head to head with Splenda and Equal. It's done fairly well in non-carbonated beverages and is now available in more than 20 Coke drinks, including hot-selling Vitamin Water Zero. But Truvia and other stevia-based sweeteners have made almost no headway in carbonated beverages.

Lately, Cargill's been focusing on a Truvia-sweetened chocolate milk with one-third less sugar than the original. The kids' classic has come under fire lately for sugariness and calories. The Minneapolis School District said in May it's eliminating chocolate milk as a lunch option starting this summer.

Cargill has also been developing a beverage texturizer based on "lubricity," a term generally used as a measure of friction in auto lubricants. The texturizer aims to lower the friction of a beverage as it goes down the hatch, restoring the lost mouth feel that comes from reducing sugar -- in the process, creating a more palatable low-calorie beverage.

The jury is still out on the texturizer, which hit the market earlier this year.

But the time and money Cargill has spent developing such ingredients suggests the company sees big potential for sales and profit. The texturizer took seven years to develop, and Cargill's Truvia sweetener required at least five years of research before it reached store shelves.

John Sweeney, director of North American food applications for Cargill's ingredients division, said both public opinion and the regulatory climate are leading the food industry to make the investment. "You only do that if you believe it's the future."

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

ABOUT THIS SERIES

This is the first in an occasional series about the public health challenges increasingly facing the packaged food business, one of Minnesota's most important industries.

Exclusive: Available today at startribune.com for subscribers only.

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