The uncomfortable truth about Campbell’s salt u-turn

It has enraged dieticians and delighted the Salt Institute. But Campbell Soup’s high-profile u-turn on sodium raises some difficult questions about reformulation for all stakeholders. Great comment from FoodNavigator-USA… In case you missed the howls of outrage that immediately followed, after an “unsparing analysis” of “strategies that are working and not working”, Campbell has resolved to boldly go back – to almost where it was before – and add some salt back into its Select Harvest soups.

Predictably, dieticians are not happy and lobby groups have accused bosses of taking the easy way out.

After all, points out the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there are plenty of ways to compensate for reduced sodium, from salt replacers and enhancers to extra herbs, spices, veg or other ingredients, provided you are prepared to pay for them.

But is Campbell really sacrificing consumers’ health to preserve its bottom line, or is it just saying publically what many firms are saying privately, that while we say we want products with less fat, salt and sugar, we don’t always put our money where our month is?

As Paul Newberry, co-founder of UK-based fruit snack maker Stream Foods pointed out at a conference run by our sister title last year, coming up with products that impress angry dieticians is one thing, getting consumers to buy them is another.

“At one time, I was seduced by nutritionists saying I should be doing this or that and I launched 100% fruit desserts with vitamin C. They got into Sainsbury and Tesco, and they met all the nutritional criteria, but nobody bought them and they were delisted. I lost £200,000 but it taught me a lesson: my job is to make products that sell.”

And as Campbell’s incumbent chief executive Denise Morrison made very clear in her frank analysis of the soup market last week, sodium reduction is not a killer USP for many consumers, whether we like it or not.

Indeed, many firms have chosen to conduct their costly and technically challenging sodium reduction work ‘by stealth’ rather than shouting about it on pack precisely because telling consumers what they are up to does not sell more products, and may even have the opposite effect.

Firms trying to reduce saturated fat face similar problems, with claims to this effect proving a selling point for consumers on some products, but by no means on all.

The bottom line is that cutting salt, fat and sugar is expensive and difficult, and while manufacturers are facing intense pressure from politicians, health lobbyists and NGOs to get on with it, making a business case, particularly on high-volume, low margin products, is not easy……

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