In the Kitchen
So long, high sodium
By Brandi Cowen
It’s no secret: Canadians consume too much sodium.
It’s no secret: Canadians consume too much sodium.
According to Health Canada, the average Canadian adult consumes 3,092
milligrams of sodium every day. That’s more than double the 1,500
milligrams the human body needs daily. The country’s Sodium Working
Group warned in a recent report that most of the sodium in the Canadian
diet comes from foods that have been prepared commercially, including
foods served by restaurants. The report also identifies the main
high-sodium culprits: “breads, which include all commercial breads,
muffins, buns, biscuits, rolls and similar baked products (14 per
cent); processed meats (nine per cent); vegetable-based dishes, tomato
and vegetable juices (eight per cent); soups (seven per cent);
pasta-based dishes (six per cent); and cheese (five per cent).”
Consider how these sources of sodium relate to your products. Crust.
Sauce. Veggies. Meat. Cheese. Many of the foods contributing to the
glut of sodium in the Canadian diet may be the very same ingredients
that make your pizzas a hit with your patrons. As consumers become more
health conscious, these sources of sodium may hurt your business.
But remember, despite the bad rap it’s earned in the media, sodium isn’t all bad.
“Sodium is actually an essential nutrient,” explains Dr. Mary L’Abbé, a
professor with the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional
Sciences. The human body needs sodium to help with everything from
regulating blood pressure and maintaining electrolyte balance to
generating energy within cells.
L’Abbé, who served as chair of the Sodium Working Group from its
creation until September 2009, and vice-chair from September 2009
onward, says sodium is also integral to the modern food industry. In
addition to flavour, salt is “used to provide texture in foods . . . in
cured meats to help in its preservation, shelf life and microbial food
“It helps to bind proteins so foods feel more tender and soft in the
mouth. In things that have to be fermented, like cheeses and breads,
you need a certain amount of sodium to help the fermentation process
and cure properly,” L’Abbé adds. “Even things like colour in meats are
enhanced by sodium levels.”
Despite the many roles sodium plays in food processing and preparation
– not to mention taste – it’s possible to make significant cuts while
still delivering the delicious dishes customers have come to expect.
The challenge is to reduce sodium levels in your menu offerings without
sacrificing taste, texture or overall quality.
MAKING THE CUT
“We’ve reduced sodium in over 75 per cent of our menu items . . . I
would say we’ve probably done 80 per cent of what we can do,” says
Matthew Hoag, corporate chef at Boston Pizza.
The chain made sodium reduction a priority three years ago. At the
time, trans fats were the hot-button issue, and Boston Pizza had just
succeeded in eliminating industrially added trans fats from its entire
menu lineup. With that accomplishment under its belt, the chain began
exploring ways to tackle another growing public health concern: high
As Hoag explains, the chain has been busy since then, working with its
suppliers to identify menu components where sodium reductions can be
achieved. “Anytime we’re having discussions on a product, we’ll ask,
‘what can you do to help us out with this?’ and just keep pushing it
The process involves a fair bit of trial and error. It’s a balancing
act between what’s possible from a technical standpoint, and what’s
desirable in a finished product.
“You look at [a component] and say, ‘Let’s look at our current pizza
sauce today and let’s look at some samples that are 10 per cent, 15 per
cent, 25 per cent and 50 per cent reduced in sodium,’” says Hoag. “Can
we tell the difference? What is the difference? How far can we go?”
Once those questions have been answered, the new, lower sodium pizza
sauce is rolled out in a limited market area. This small-scale trial
allows Boston Pizza to test the changes and, most importantly, monitor
When the chain introduces reformulated components into its dining
rooms, it doesn’t tend to advertise the changes. Rather than issuing
press releases to build media buzz, or highlighting health benefits on
its menus, Hoag says, “When we make a change, we will frequently make a
change and notify absolutely nobody.”
Considering the results of a recent Technomic study, which found that
although half of all Canadians report wanting healthier menu items,
only one-quarter actually consider nutrition when dining out, Boston
Pizza may have the right idea.
SHAKING THE HABIT
There are two specific challenges that Boston Pizza has had to contend
with when reducing the sodium levels of its menu offerings. “One is
what you technically can and can’t do,” Hoag explains. Citing the
example of cured meats, he says, “You just can’t drop sodium at will on
them without compromising food safety in the process. That’s probably
one of the biggest challenges.”
Customer taste for salty foods is another major obstacle to cutting
sodium. The trick, says Hoag, is to reduce the amount of sodium in your
dishes slowly, giving the customer’s palate an opportunity to adapt to
the lower sodium levels.
“Guests have been acclimatized to the taste of salt. You see a lot of
people put salt on their food before they even taste it,” he notes.
“You want [the reduction] to be gradual so that the pizza they have
today tastes like the pizza they have tomorrow and next year.”
L’Abbé agrees that gradual reductions are key. “The data seems to say
that you can lower sodium by about 20 per cent, 30 per cent, and people
won’t even notice the difference,” she says.
For products made in house, L’Abbé recommends waiting until the end of
the cooking process before seasoning. “Salt to taste, not salt and then
taste,” she advises. Adding more salt if necessary is easy; removing
excess salt after the fact is not.
Brand name ingredients brought in from elsewhere pose a different sort of sodium reduction challenge.
“Take Frank’s RedHot,” says Hoag. “If we ask them to reduce sodium,
they’re going to say it’s a branded product and all the other people
that buy Frank’s are going to be affected by it.” In this case, sodium
reduction would have to be initiated by the product manufacturer.
“They’re going to do it based on many, many people asking them to do
it,” he adds.
You can also help customers curb their intake by quite literally taking
sodium off the table. The Sodium Working Group reported that just six
per cent of the sodium in the average Canadian diet is added at the
table, but this simple step can still make a difference, and you may be
surprised by how many of your customers don’t notice that their
favourite shake-on seasoning is missing.
“I was at a meeting where there were no salt shakers,” L’Abbé recalls.
“It was only afterwards that [organizers] realized there were only a
couple of tables that actually asked for a salt shaker.” She says most
of her fellow meeting goers only noticed the shakers’ absence when
chatting after the meal. A meal which, L’Abbé is quick to add, tasted
just fine without a sprinkle of salt.
Even though Technomic’s survey found that nutrition isn’t a top-of-mind
concern for many diners when browsing menus, Canadians are increasingly
optimistic that healthier foods can taste good. Findings from a recent
national survey reported that nearly nine in 10 Canadians (88 per cent)
believe lower-sodium foods can be delicious. Capitalize on diners’
increasing optimism that healthy can be tasty, and prove them right.
“Sodium shouldn’t be used as a crutch for flavour,” says L’Abbé. “There
are lots of ways you can add flavour to meals, like herbs and other
Pizza is often considered a major source of sodium in the Canadian
diet, but it doesn’t have to be. By working with your suppliers to
identify areas where sodium reduction is a feasible option, and making
gradual changes to your pies, you can offer your customers tasty, lower
sodium fare. The key is to balance what’s possible against what’s
realistic while still delivering the quality product your customers
have come to expect.