Later this month, at a pilot manufacturing plant here, PepsiCo Inc. plans to start churning out batches of a secret new ingredient to make its Lay's potato chips healthier.
The ingredient is a new "designer salt" whose crystals are shaped and sized in a way that reduces the amount of sodium consumers ingest when they munch. PepsiCo hopes the powdery salt, which it is still studying and testing with consumers, will cut sodium levels 25% in its Lay's Classic potato chips. The new salt could help reduce sodium levels even further in seasoned Lay's chips like Sour Cream & Onion, PepsiCo said, and it could be used in other products like Cheetos and Quaker bars.
At an investor conference Monday in New York, the company said it is committed to cutting its products' average sodium per serving by 25% by 2015 and saturated fat and added sugar by 15% and 25%, respectively, this decade.
The designer salt is one of the latest and most intricate efforts yet by a food company to vault ahead of concerns among government officials about the possible health effects of the widespread use of sodium in processed foods.
Eating too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease. Most Americans consume about twice their recommended limit daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pressure is growing on U.S. food companies to act, because most of the salt Americans consume is in processed foods. In January, New York City, as well as other cities and health organizations, called for restaurants and makers of packaged foods to cut salt 25% within the next five years.
Sodium intake recommendations may also be lowered substantially in new U.S. dietary guidelines this year. And First Lady Michelle Obama is pressing food companies to cut fat, salt and sugar in their products.
The new salt represents PepsiCo's latest step to cut back on unhealthy ingredients in big sellers like soda and potato chips. The company has also switched from frying its potato chips in transfats to using sunflower oil, and it has boosted spending to $414 million in 2009 from $282 million in 2006 for product development. To lead the research effort, it has hired health experts and scientists, including Mehmood Khan, a former Mayo Clinic endocrinologist, and Derek Yach, a former World Health Organization chronic diseases chief.
By 2015, PepsiCo aims to cut sodium in its salty snacks 25%. "What we want to do with our "fun for you" products is to make them the healthiest "fun for you" products," Chairman Indra Nooyi said. "We want our potato chips to be fried in the healthiest oils with the lowest salt."
Cutting salt out of foods is difficult because it adds body to foods as well as enhancing flavor. In addition, little is understood about how salt is perceived on the tongue.
PepsiCo said it has had to dig deeper than other food makers that have reduced sodium by gradually removing salt, using salt substitutes or grinding salt into small particles that contact the tongue in more places.
That's because salt is one of only three ingredients in Lay's Classic potato chips (the others: potatoes and oil). Reducing the amount or using substitutes would alter the chips' flavor, said Greg Yep, a global research and development vice president.
So PepsiCo had to come up with a way to deliver the same saltiness while reducing sodium. Prodded by a U.K. government salt-reduction campaign, it first slashed sodium 25% in its seasoned Walkers crisps in 2006, replacing some of the salt with other seasonings and using smaller salt particles.
But those methods couldn't be used on plain Lay's chips, which couldn't mask the changes with seasonings. The smaller particles gave a hit of saltiness that was intense but too fleeting.
Instead, working with scientists at about a dozen academic institutions and companies in Europe and the U.S., PepsiCo studied different shapes of salt crystals to try to find one that would dissolve more efficiently on the tongue. Normally, only about 20% of the salt on a chip actually dissolves on the tongue before the chip is chewed and swallowed, and the remaining 80% is swallowed without contributing to the taste, said Dr. Khan, who oversees PepsiCo's long-term research.
PepsiCo wanted a salt that would replicate the traditional "salt curve," delivering an initial spike of saltiness, then a body of flavor and lingering sensation, said Dr. Yep, who joined the company in June 2009 from Swiss flavor company Givaudan SA.
"We have to think of the whole eating experience—not just the physical product, but what's actually happening when the consumer eats the product," Dr. Yep explained.
The result was a slightly powdery ingredient that tastes like regular salt. Small groups of U.S. and U.K. consumers couldn't tell the difference when comparing the two salts on chips last summer, PepsiCo said. PepsiCo declined to give details while the new salt is in development.
PepsiCo is gearing up pilot manufacturing at its Frito-Lay headquarters so that it can conduct wider consumer testing and fine tune the technology.
It could take two more years before the new salt is introduced, Dr. Yep said. In the meantime, PepsiCo is reducing the salt in new versions of seasoned Lay's such as Sour Cream & Onion this year by an average of 25% by switching to natural ingredients and rebalancing other flavors so that less sodium is needed.
Read the whole story from the Wall Street Journal here.