- Sixty-four percent of U.S. consumers agree that eating too much sodium is bad for their health, but only 41% say they personally try to control how much of the ingredient they consume, according to a new global survey by The Ajinomoto Group, a Japanese manufacturer of foods and seasonings.
- Most consumers said they would be motivated to eat less salt if grocery stores removed high-sodium foods from their shelves, according to the SALTS survey of 7,000 consumers, including 1,000 in the U.S. But roughly half of consumers in this country said that low-sodium food is bland, tasteless or boring.
- Although there are no federal regulations in the U.S. that limit how much sodium is allowed in food, the growing evidence of the ingredient's negative health impacts underlines the need for someone — whether it be the consumer, manufacturer or regulator — to take action.
Among U.S. consumers, 53% consider sodium content to be a top factor in deciding what to eat, behind taste (83%), health and nutritional value (60%) and cost/price (59%), according to the Ajinomoto SALTS survey. This rank is actually higher than the global average, but it doesn't mean that sodium is getting enough recognition among consumers in this country for its adverse health effects.
Excess sodium consumption can cause high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, according to Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But most Americans consume about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, much more than is recommended by global and national health experts.
Part of this could be a general lack of education about how much sodium is considered healthy. The World Health Organization has a guideline of 2,000 milligrams per day. But only 19% of all consumers in the Ajinomoto survey guessed the correct recommended WHO guideline. About 30% guessed a higher amount, and another 40% weren't sure of the correct figure. However, only one-third of Americans believe they are consuming more than the recommended amount.
Consumers are also more focused on other nutritional elements when making food choices, the survey found. Among U.S. survey respondents, the top three factors for considering what to eat are the amount of sugar, vegetables and protein.
In a press release on the survey findings, Ajinomoto notes that consumers "deflect responsibility" over sodium intake. Instead, they place the onus on grocery stores not to carry high-sodium offerings — despite the expectation that the alternatives may not as taste good. They also would be more motivated to lower their sodium intake if the government intervened by lowering the recommended daily guidelines, specifying a maximum amount per serving, or requiring the labeling of naturally occurring vs. added sodium in foods.
In the U.S., regulatory action around sodium has been minimal. This past October, the FDA finally released voluntary sodium reduction guidelines for more than 160 categories of processed food, five years after it first proposed them. The nonbinding recommendations also provide manufacturers more than two years to hit the guidelines, and would only help reduce Americans' average sodium consumption from 3,400 milligrams per day to 3,000 milligrams.
However, consumers also don't seem to give food manufacturers much sway in shaping their sodium consumption. In the Ajinomoto survey, manufacturer moves such as clearly labeling sodium content on packaging, offering sodium-reducing alternatives and actively reducing the sodium level of their foods rank far behind retailer and government motivators. That said, CPGs such as General Mills and PepsiCo have set their own sodium-reduction targets for their product portfolios.
Tia Rains, vice president of customer engagement and strategic development at Ajinomoto, said successfully reducing consumers' sodium intake "will require cooperation across food and beverage companies, national governments, and health professionals, with the ultimate goal to encourage diets that are nutritious, taste great and meet sodium targets."