Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sodium Content of Cheerios Reduced in Very Low Key Way

Cheerios labeling 2011 - 190 mg of sodium

Cheerios, the breakfast cereal that is marketed more as a heart medicine ("Clinically PROVEN to Help Reduce Cholesterol!") than as a breakfast food, has been criticized in the past by your blogger and others for its surprisingly high sodium content.

For example, in 2007 ABC News reported  the comments of Dr. Randall Zusman, associate professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School,  on a bowl of "one popular cereal brand" that may pack more of a sodium punch than many consumers realize:
"One cup of Cheerios -- frequently advertised as heart healthy -- has 300 milligrams of salt," he explained. No one eats only one cup, so two to three cups each morning would be nearly 50 percent of your daily allotment. Yet, the FDA allows Cheerios to be advertised as a healthy alternative."
A 2007 blog post states that at that time Cheerios had a sodium content of 210 mg per serving.  The same number comes up in a 2009 blog post also.

There were low key hints of this coming.  In 2010, our fellow bloggers at Foodeducate quoted  Susan Crockett, Ph. D., General Mills vice president, Health and Nutrition as saying
“General Mills is committed to reducing sodium levels in a series of small steps across our portfolio. We believe making changes in a series of smaller steps is the right way to continue to deliver great taste while reducing sodium.”
Foodeducate added
The gradual effort will span the next 5 years and reduce the salt by 20% across product lines. Slashing a large amount at once may cause consumer backlash, so the baby step approach makes sense.
It’s no small challenge to remove sodium from processed food. besides the flavor loss, salt has additional roles – from preservative to binding agent to dough improver.
Unfortunately though, we are consuming twice the daily amount of salt we should be, and this leads to a host of health problems, most notably high blood pressure.
(Indeed, most bread recipes require salt as it plays a role in the rising process.  However, There are no salt/low salt bread recipes .  Donald Gazzaniga has written a whole cook book of low salt bread and cake recipes. At right is a sodium free bread sold by Vermont Bread Company on the East Coast - Whole Foods carries it.  Trader Joe's also sells sodium free bread in all the East Coast and West Coast stores I have visited. (Although Trader Joe's never advertises this, they have a broader selection of low salt foods than most mainstream supermarkets.) However, in most processed foods salt has no impact on the texture of the product.)

Cheerios labeling from website (October 2013)  - 160 mg
The Cheerios website, as of this writing in October 2013, shows the nutrition labeling shown at left for the product with 160 gm per serving.  The website also shows 12 different versions of Cheerios currently marketed in the US.  According to the website these range in sodium content from 135 mg to 180 mg per serving if you really need a "sodium hit" with your breakfast.  

The focus of this post is the traditional "yellow box" Cheerios that is the one marketed to adults and is the one with the repeated cardiac health claims that seem to test the FDA's tolerance for health claims in advertising. (Honey Nut Cheerios, 160  mg per serving according to the website, also is labeled "Can Help Lower Cholesterol", but Cinnamon Burst Cheerios, Fruity Cheerios, etc. do not appear to be marketed to adults with health claims.

Cheerios October 2013 - 140 mg
So imagine my surprise when I glanced during breakfast at a box of  "yellow box" Cheerios my spouse was eating recently.  The nutrition labeling is shown at left - 140 mg of sodium per serving!  This could be legally labeled "low sodium".  General Mills has successfully reduced the sodium from 210 mg to 140 mg per serving.  Several Google searches show no mention of this other than the vague 2010 statement from Dr. Crockett quoted above.  They also show no obvious complaints from Cheerios customers about the lower sodium level.  So maybe General Mills was successful with their "smaller step" approach to wean the public to a more reasonable sodium level.

As the food processing industry jumps with glee at introducing gluten-free food, even though the number of people medically needing a gluten-free diet is much lower than those needing a low sodium diet, they are ambivalent about meeting the need for low sodium foods.  Indeed, General Mills' covert marketing of the new lower sodium Cheerios - misleading information on the website and no "low sodium" designation in advertising or on the package - is a sign that the food industry views low sodium products as a secret to hide.  The  "low sodium" label at right has been used by Campbell's Soup in the past on soup products.  It implies that low sodium products should only be used for "sodium restricted diets" and that maybe are dangerous for others.

So congratulations to General Mills on their progress on Cheerios even though they are unwilling to admit it.  Maybe the same food technologists who helped you on this project can also work to come up with more low sodium/no sodium bread choices that can be mass marketed to Americans.

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