Ambivalent consumer behavior a challenge

Even though consumers are aware of advice from health professionals to limit sodium consumption, and say they are concerned with health problems associated with excessive sodium, one of the biggest challenges for food and beverage companies is the inability of Americans to embrace those reduced-, low- or no-sodium foods.

Dollar sales for grocery, drug, mass and convenience stores (excluding Walmart) for products making low-sodium claims were up 5 percent for the 52 weeks ending October 4, 2009, but units were actually down .1 percent versus the same period in '2008, according to data from SymphonyIRI.

Considering the growth in the number of sodium-claims product introductions, flat to relatively small sales growth is not impressive. Datamonitor's ProductLaunch Analytics showed low-sodium as the No. 1 growth claim in 2009, with 157 launches -- representing 9 percent of total food and beverage launches. In addition, there were 35 no-sodium, 23 low salt (not the same as sodium), and 27 no-salt launches, reports Packaged Facts. A new Packaged Facts report on low/no sodium product claims found 2009 sales estimates at $21.8 billion, representing 2.8 percent of total food and beverage sales of $600 billion in 2009.

According to Nielsen Strategic Planner tracking data, total category sales of food and beverage products making sodium claims were flat last year (at $14.9 billion) in grocery, drug and mass outlets (excluding Walmart) -- although one subsegment, "no salt/sodium-added," showed a 10 percent sales gain over 2008.

The NPD Group's National Eating Trends data as of February 2010, show 30 percent of Americans expressing concern about F&B sodium levels -- up from 26 percent in 2000, but down from 43 percent in 1990, according to Vice President Harry Balzer. The number of low/no salt products consumed annually per household is 40 -- up from 30 in 2005, but down from 81 in 1992, reports Food Business News. Balzer says concern may have declined for a time partly because of increasing lower/no sodium options.  He also cites a shift in consumer emphasis since the 90's regarding "better for you" foods. Products that make "lower" sodium, fat and cholesterol claims have seen consumption decline, while those claiming health-enhancing ingredients and additives (whole grain, Omega 3 etc.) have seen consumption rise, he points out.


Habit is the biggest determinant of all in consumer behaviors, including eating patterns, stresses Balzer. "Taste preferences are so hard to break," he says. "People will try new products, but won't make lasting changes unless products deliver taste, cost and convenience."