By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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As awareness of health issues caused by excess sodium grows, so does the number of food giants that have stepped up efforts to lower the sodium content in their food, including many of the nation’s favorite pre-packaged staples.

Instant noodles, frozen pizza, canned vegetables, and boxed rice and meal helpers are among the various food types getting a reboot as companies, including General Mills, Nissin Foods USA, Nestlé, Mars Food, Kraft, Heinz, Unilever and other globally-known brands make salt-reducing changes to their products.

The corporate efforts coincide with ongoing efforts by the National Salt Reduction Initiative, a New York City-led coalition of cities, states and health groups aimed at reducing sodium levels in the packaged food industry last month, the NRSI announced five-year results from its campaign, reporting a 7 percent drop in sodium levels between 2009 and 2014.

The NSRI initially worked with food companies to set 2012 and 2014 targets for lowering sodium in packaged and restaurant foods, with an ultimate goal of reducing levels by 25 percent by 2014.

The American Journal of Public Health reported that 26 percent of the packaged food categories met the 2012 targets, while 3 percent met goals by the end of 2014. The overall sodium reduction amounted to 6.8 percent.

Americans consume far more sodium than recommended, with the greatest source of it coming from restaurant, processed and prepackaged foods. High sodium intake often contributes to high blood pressure, a leading cause of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and other health problems. Yet, most Americans consume more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, which far exceeds the American Heart Association’s 1,500 milligram target for ideal heart health.

Within the last six months, Mars Food and Nestlé have each laid out plans to reduce sodium levels by 10 percent to 20 percent in products that do not already meet internally-set sodium thresholds.

The two companies also were among the most vocal about applauding the federal Food and Drug Administration for proposing voluntary sodium reduction targets for the food industry, saying the guidance  could help level the playing field.

“Without a common benchmark though, companies that improve the nutritional value of their products will be forced to compete in a marketplace that favors the status quo,” said Caroline M. Sherman, vice president of corporate affairs for Mars Food North America.  “Voluntary guidance can help support the development of alternatives for consumers.”

Mars Food, which makes Uncle Ben’s rice products and packaged meals, has reduced sodium across its global portfolio by 25 percent since 2007. The company plans to cut sodium by an additional percent on average by 2021, Sherman said.

Last week, Nissin Foods announced the company would reduce sodium by roughly 15 percent to 20 percent in all of its Cup Noodles flavors. The iconic instant ramen noodles will also lose artificial flavors, adding ingredients like paprika and lime.

Not all companies announce their health initiatives since reducing sodium in products can mean altering the recipes for popular items with trademark tastes. Some worry that consumers may know lower sodium is healthier for them, but the perceived taste of the food, rather than good sense, may drive choices made in grocery store aisles.

Walmart found this out when it worked with suppliers to reduce salt and sugars across national and private brands. So far, it has reduced sodium levels by 18 percent and additional sugars by ten percent. But the retail giant also learned a few lessons about how to achieve reduction goals.

“We saw that specifically in sodium reduction – you can’t take all sodium out at once,” said a Walmart company spokeswoman. The company found success by making “incremental changes over time so the product continues to meet the taste expectations of our customers.”

Gradual reduction does help taste buds adapt to foods with less sodium, according to a strategy paper created by the Institute of Medicine.

Some companies say they’ve learned that recipe tweaks are necessary when reducing sodium from other ingredients, such as baking soda.

For example, when General Mills first tried to reduce the sodium in some of its refrigerated dough products, the newly formulated product caused the packaging to pop open because of the impact lower levels had on the dough’s leavening process. In another instance, when scientists tried to reduce the amount of baking soda, the dough turned gray instead of white.

General Mills wrote about some of the experiences in a blog post to help solicit understanding from consumers, said Weimer, senior fellow at the company’s Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition.

“If you can put it in the context of what they do in their own kitchen when they’re going to bake some biscuits or muffins, it might help them understand that, ‘Oh right, if I don’t use that ingredient, I’m not likely going to have the flakey dough that will rise and be tasty,’” she said.

Sherman said she also believes that adapting consumer tastes and preferences to a healthier product is best done incrementally.