How Prepared Foods Are Secretly Getting Healthier

Forget about fat. What's really killing Americans is salt. We've increased our sodium consumption by 50 percent in the past two decades, and the results are shocking: excessive sodium intake leads to high blood pressure, stroke, and a variety of other health woes. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that reducing salt intake by about 3 grams a day—we currently consume an average of 10—would drastically improve our health, reducing by about a third cases of chronic heart disease, stroke, and heart attack. It would also save up to $24 billion in annual health-care costs.

The war on salt has already begun, with New York making a very public stand: a state assemblyman tried to ban salt in restaurant cooking, while the New York City Health Department declared an initiative to fight the increasing number of cardiovascular diseases by reducing salt in packaged foods. A New York City–led partnership of cities, states, and national health organizations, the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), developed specific targets to help companies reduce the salt levels in 61 categories of packaged food and 25 classes of restaurant food. Hamburgers, for instance, would be healthier with a proposed target of 18 percent less sodium in four years.

Getting companies on board is the most important part: according to the NYC Health Department, 80 percent of the salt consumers eat is added to food before it's sold. But luckily, some companies are already in favor of lowering sodium—they just don't want you to know about it.

During a meeting with fellows from the Association of Health Care Journalists in December, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden (formerly New York City's top health official) discussed efforts made by the CDC to work with food manufacturers to reduce sodium in snacks. "In 50 years, the food we eat now will taste like brine," he said, noting that the gradual reduction of salt across the board would be barely perceptible to consumers. Still, he said, while many of the major manufacturers are willing to work with the CDC, they were reluctant to tout their involvement in salt-reduction schemes. They want to make their products healthier, Frieden explained; they just don't necessarily want to tell anyone about it.

That sounds counterintuitive, considering how often food companies are admonished for their role in America's health woes. But for as much as consumers say they want healthier options, the realitytells a different tale. Indeed, taste is the one thing Americans are not willing to compromise. According to a survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), taste ranks the highest (at 87 percent) when it comes to factors affecting consumer choices. Next comes price, and healthfulness is only third on the scale. "The minute you start whispering this is healthier for you, people start getting very nervous about the taste," says Hank Cardello, a former food executive and current CEO of 27°NORTH, a consulting firm that helps companies address social issues. "If you start talking about how healthy a hamburger is, or french fries, people will start to think, oh man, that must be awful."

It's the expectation, not the taste, that really foils consumers, says Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. "When people are eating out, they want to indulge," he says. "If you show a sign that says heart healthy, or low calorie, they will think that it will taste terrible." That bias extends beyond fast food as well. For instance, a Cornell study showed that simply labeling an energy bar as containing "10 grams of soy protein" led people to rate it as less tasty with an "unpleasant aftertaste" compared to another group who ate the identical energy bar that was instead simply labeled as containing "10 grams of protein."

Fast-food restaurants started experimenting with healthier options in the late '80s, but only succeeded in slimming their revenue. Wendy's spent $10 million advertising a new and ambitious reduced-calorie menu but pulled it after less than a year. No one wanted it. McDonald's 1992 McLean sandwich achieved fast-food infamy: the 91 percent fat-free patty, with less than half the fat content of its well-loved counterpart Big Mac, was rejected and dubbed McFlop by consumers.

Any time you take a beloved staple like a Big Mac, Oreo, or Triscuit, and tell consumers that it's been modified, there's bound to be blowback. Remember New Coke? Tell them it's healthy and watch sales sink.

But when companies keep their healthier recipes secret, sales don't necessarily budge. Take El Pollo Loco, the chicken chain, which quietly reengineered their lard-laden black-bean dish. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their sole source of beans, the restaurant chain had to pull the popular item from the menu. This gave them the chance to reformulate the dish as they looked for a new supplier, and a year later they brought back a lard-free, lower-calorie version. They didn't say a thing, and customers didn't notice. "What were we going to say? 'New and improved, now without lard and ham fat?' That's just code for 'don't taste very good,' " says Steve Carley, CEO of El Pollo Loco.

But if food retailers don't advertise when they lower fat, salt, or calories, how are health-conscious consumers to know that they're making better decisions? It's best to check labelsfrequently, and to not assume that any change in ingredients will be explicitly advertised. In general, it's safe to assume that the fast-food side or dessert cake you're consuming is not the picture of health. The food industry maintains that reducing harmful ingredients on the sly is good corporate citizenship. "We're not fooling or manipulating the customers," Cardello says. "We are just making it easier for them to eat better."