Food manufacturers have been scrambling to meet consumers’ demands for healthier processed foods. They’ve reformulated their products to reduce or eliminate added sugars, preservatives, and certain fats. But there’s been one stubborn holdout: sodium.
A study published last year showed that the food industry has made significant progress on the sodium front, reducing the sales-weighted mean sodium density by 6.8% across food categories between 2009 and 2014.
But there’s still work to be done. Americans still eat way too much sodium, and about 75% of their intake comes from processed and commercially prepared foods. That’s why the FDA issued a draft guidance last year on voluntary sodium reduction goals for commercially processed, packaged, and prepared foods.
A study published recently in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension suggests a new way the food industry might accomplish the goal of supporting healthier food choices via low-sodium products: adding spice.
The study, which was done in China, found that people who enjoyed spicy foods consumed less salt and had lower blood pressure than people who didn’t enjoy spicy foods. Using brain imaging, the researchers found that the areas stimulated by salt and spice overlap, which means that eating spicy foods may make you more sensitive to salt.
Zhiming Zhu, the senior author on the paper, commented that “even a small, gradual increase in spices in your food may have a health benefit.”
This is one of those rare cases where the research lines up perfectly with consumer trends to suggest a path forward.
Consumers have long expressed an interest in low-sodium products. Market research firm GfK recently found that low sodium is the third most important factor consumers look for, after low sugar and non-GMO. At the same time, nearly every food trend study done over the past couple of years has indicated that consumers are looking for new, bold, spicy flavors.
Together, the results suggest a great opportunity for the industry — add spice, reduce sodium, make everyone (and their doctors) happy.