just the answer: Kraft's Vicky Evans Stencel on sodium cuts

By Katy Askew and Dean Best | 28 September 2012

Kraft Foods has claimed it is "on track" to meet its three-year goal of reducing the sodium content of products across its portfolio by an average of 10%. However, while food firms have come under pressure from US lobby groups and health campaigners to cut sodium levels in processed foods, consumers have proven resistant to any measure that would sacrifice taste. Kraft senior health and wellness director Vicky Evans Stencel spoke to Katy Askew and Dean Best about Kraft's balancing act to deliver familiar flavours through reformulated recipes in order to address health concerns.

just-food: US consumers have often proven resistant to reformulation if it comes at the cost of taste. Does Kraft see a need to deliver "health through stealth"?

Stencel: Consumer acceptance is a critical factor that guides our reformulation efforts. Sodium reduction is extremely challenging as it impacts food safety, taste and texture. We cannot compromise on any of these attributes. If we were to reduce sodium in our products and sacrifice taste, consumers won't eat any healthier. They will simply look for products that meet their specific tastes - including products that have as much sodium if not higher. 
 
just-food: How have consumers reacted to your reformulation efforts? Has the taste profile of your reformulated products changed?

Stencel: The products that we reformulate undergo significant consumer testing, which enable us to understand the level of consumer acceptance. The reformulated products that we have introduced have been well received by consumers because we do not compromise on taste.

just-food: Have you witnessed any resistance or have shoppers remained loyal to Kraft brands and reacted positively to health initiatives?

Stencel: We know that consumers are looking for better for you options. Kraft offers many choices across the company's portfolio to meet the needs. We have had great success both reformulating products and introducing new products that are better for you.

just-food: How does Kraft balance consumer demand for the taste profile they want with pressure to deliver healthy foods?

Stencel: We understand that balance very well. Our efforts in health and wellness are designed to help meet the needs of consumers. Our research tells us most people want to eat healthy without compromising on taste. We believe eating the foods you love and living a healthier lifestyle can, and should, co-exist. In fact, since 2005, Kraft Foods has reformulated or launched more than 1,500 better-for-you options in the US and Canada. Roughly one-in-four products have been reformulated - either by reducing sodium, sugar, fat or trans-fat or increasing fibre, whole grain or other important nutrients. Through these efforts, we continue to make many of your favourites from Kraft Foods better for you without compromising taste.

just-food: Can you provide some detail on how - which ingredients - Kraft has used to lower salt? There are some products in the market from companies like Tate & Lyle, Cargill or Purac.

Stencel: What we've learned through our efforts is that there are no silver bullets for sodium replacement, and that each product category presents unique challenges and requires a different solution.  While our formulas are proprietary, I can say that we have employed ingredients and technologies that have allowed us to remove sodium containing ingredients, sometimes substituting with those which are potassium-based, balance flavor profiles, remove off-notes, and maintain texture and food safety. In some cases these changes have enabled large sodium reductions, such as a 40% sodium reduction in Kraft Original BBQ Sauce, and less in others.

just-food: Do you favour offering "better for you" options alongside original recipes?

Stencel: We offer thousands of recipes designated as healthy living on our website kraftrecipes.com. These recipes are developed with nutrition in mind and display a sun icon to make them easy to find for consumers seeking a better for you option. Many of our most popular mainstream recipes do have a "made-over" counterpart. These "made-over" recipes explain the nutrition savings (fewer calories or less fat for example) and how we did it through twists to cooking techniques and ingredients. All recipes display nutrition information per serving to help consumers make informed choices.

just-food: Kraft has made it obvious on some of its packaging that products contain less sodium. Why did it do that when some consumers have reacted badly to companies' moves to cut sodium?

Stencel: Our approach varies on a brand by brand basis, as it depends on how a reduced sodium message fits into the benefits we are communicating to consumers. We do know, however, that some consumers are interested in limiting their sodium intake and look for products that have low or reduced sodium levels. In the past, we haven't created any campaigns that specifically focus on low or reduced sodium messages, but we do clearly include messages on pack.

just-food: You mention Kraft has had "great success" in reformulating products and introducing better-for-you products. Can you provide colour on sales? Have reformulated products sold more than their previous recipe? Have the better-for-you products met internal sales targets?

Stencel: We cannot provide specific information on sales targets. Because our reformulated products undergo stringent consumer testing we have a fairly good understanding of their acceptance with consumers before they are launched. Additionally we offer consumers choices throughout our portfolio. Virtually all of our classic products now come in reduced fat or reduced calorie versions such as, Philadelphia Light cream cheese and Kraft Free mayonnaise, Kraft cheeses and Kraft dressings and spreads.

just-food: Have investors welcomed these moves? PepsiCo, for instance, faced flak last year for its decision to focus more on better-for-you?

Stencel: Kraft is committed to making the foods we love even better, but we understand that we cannot compromise quality or taste. We believe everybody deserves to enjoy good food. Our investors recognise that for more than 100 years, we’ve been making convenient, affordable foods people can feel good about eating - including foods that fit their healthy lifestyles, and are supportive of our efforts.

just-food: Some consumers may be looking for healthier products but what effect has government pressure had on Kraft's sodium reduction strategy? Government wants manufacturers to make these moves to help combat ill-health and it must have had an impact on the company's strategy.

Stencel: Kraft Foods has pursued sodium reduction and other health and wellness efforts because it is the right thing to do for our consumers. We hope that through our efforts and that of many other food manufacturers, we have the potential to speed change quickly and positively impact the American diet.

Sectors: Advertising & labelling, Bakery, Canned food, Chilled foods, Condiments, dressings & sauces, Confectionery, Dairy, Dried foods, Frozen, Health & wellness, Meat & poultry, NPD & innovation

Companies: Cargill, PepsiCo

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