The enemy within

Published in FSD Update

Sodium. It’s found in just about every item of food. We consume too much of it. And now, schools and manufacturers are tasked with reducing it in meals. But is the USDA pushing too hard too fast to cut the salt?

A losing game?

Many directors report there’s been great dialogue between districts and manufacturers when it comes to developing low-sodium products. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy for either side.

R&D takes time and money, and for most companies, creating low-sodium products is just the latest step in the evolution of school meals. These companies have also been challenged with creating products that met protein and grain maximums set forth by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Those maximums have since been lifted, but companies were forced to backtrack and were often left with inventory they could no longer sell.

“I think manufacturers have had to react quickly, they’ve had to make changes and in doing so I think a lot of manufacturing has taken a hit financially, especially by sitting on inventory,” Knox County’s Dickl says. “A lot of manufacturers are sitting on excess inventory of school-focused items because they had to change recipes and modify things so quickly. When there was a grain and meat requirement they immediately switched their products to accommodate lower grain or protein. Then all of a sudden that was lifted, which was great, but the ripple effect is that these manufacturers that created a one and half grain, now everyone wants to be two grains again. They can’t sell it on the street or in restaurants because most restaurants aren’t [using] these whole-grain items.”

The USDA’s backtrack on maximums highlights another issue: The sodium reductions for targets two and three could change (see infographic on p. 28). Jim Cough, president of AdvancePierre Foods, mentioned this conundrum at the School Nutrition Association’s SNIC conference in January. Essentially his question was, “How do we develop products when we don’t know what targets to hit, especially when you factor in the cost it takes to reformulate products?”

That has school foodservice directors nervous as well. While most directors don’t believe the Schwan’s or AdvancePierres of the world will get out of the school food business, they can’t say the same for smaller companies.

“I don’t think the big players are going to leave,” Shelly says. “I think it’s the small ones, and that’s a shame because some of those smaller ones are the ones that come up with the ingenious ideas.”

Dickl thinks some companies might reduce the number of SKUs they produce to cut down on inventory and needed R&D. “Companies have tried to be everything for everybody, and I think there’s going to be a little bit of a change in focus. I don’t see them backing out of the school business. I think it might be a delay in some R&D. I think some of them are waiting to see if these sodium targets stay in place, so people don’t get stuck with inventory.”

What the future holds

Wilder says Schwan’s never thought about leaving schools, but she does think school meals could dramatically change if the third level remains as it stands.

“By the time we get to round three, I would say that the pizza of today may not be available in the school meal program because the sodium levels are so low. That’s going to change the texture of that whole-grain crust,” she says. She also thinks there will be more snack-type items offered as lunch entrées because those products will be reformulated to meet competitive food regulations that will go into effect soon.

“We’re confident that we’ll have items available that will meet the third level,” she says. “To say that we’ll get to a pizza that has the same eating appeal as it is today, that’s going to require new technology and more sophistication when it comes to the flavor profiles.

“It’s going to take some resources. Changing someone’s palate to accept lower sodium is a trick,” she adds.