By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Uncle Ben is trying to look out for your health.
Last week, Mars Food, which makes the popular brand of Uncle Ben’s rice products, pledged to lower the sodium content in its processed foods by an average of 20 percent by 2021. It also called on the Food and Drug Administration to set voluntary guidelines for the amount of sodium allowed in packaged foods.
That request should be granted soon. An FDA spokeswoman said the agency plans to release voluntary targets before June 15 in order to comply with a court order stemming from a lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Last year, the CSPI sued the FDA for its failure to answer a decade-old petition to issue salt guidelines.
Processed foods’ high salt content is a major health concern because consuming too much sodium can trigger high blood pressure, a leading cause of heart disease and stroke. On average, Americans consume 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, more than double the 1,500 milligrams recommended by the American Heart Association to maintain good heart health and help reduce blood pressure. Especially troubling is that nearly 80 percent of the salt Americans ingest comes from foods purchased in the supermarket or restaurants.
The amount of salt in Uncle Ben’s products ranges from zero in its natural whole grain brown premium rice to 813 milligrams a serving for its Country Inn chicken-flavored rice. That means an extra serving of the chicken-flavored rice would put a diner over the recommended daily amount of sodium.
“This move by Mars is significant. It recognizes that a lot of the health problems Americans face come from a food supply that is dangerous to their health,” said Elliott Antman, M.D., a senior physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Associate Dean of Clinical and Translational Research at Harvard Medical School. Antman is a past president of the AHA, which has long urged food companies to reduce sodium in its products.
Lara McCauley, vice president of corporate affairs at Mars Food North America, said it is also critical that the FDA issue guidelines to level the playing field among food companies.
She explained that many shoppers equate salt with taste. That means that companies which lower the sodium content in their products risk losing sales to firms that don’t change their recipes. There are no plans to increase consumer prices due to the recipe changes even though the new formulations will cost Mars Food about $20 million, McCauley said.
“Even if the guidelines are voluntary, it starts a dialogue,” said McCauley. “It gets people thinking about the importance of reducing sodium.”
Other companies are also lowering their products’ salt content in front of the FDA’s expected action but have fallen short of their own expectations.
Last year, General Mills announced that over five years it had reduced sodium by at least 20 percent in seven key retail categories. However, it had tried to reduce sodium by that amount in 10 different groups.
McCauley said Mars Food plans to gradually reduce the sodium content in its products to avoid jolting consumers’ taste buds. Mars Food will add more herbs and spices to the products to maintain their flavor while still reducing the salt.
“If the flavor changes too dramatically at once, consumers will switch brands,” McCauley explained. “We want to bring the consumer along in the process.”
Mars Food is a division of Mars, the giant conglomerate that also makes candy such as M&M’s, Snickers and Twix. McCauley said they will not be effected by the changes because they are considered special indulgences and not part of an everyday diet.
Mars Food is also reducing fat and sugar in some of its products while adding vegetables to others. However, those products are largely sold outside the United States.