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Salt Reduction Creates Game of Chicken

Sodium has been on the radar lately as one of the new health super-villains, and salt-reduction is becoming one of the hot new food industry trends -- especially since processed foods are the biggest source of salt.

But the push isn't coming from consumers so much as from government and public health advocates, and the first companies to cut down on their salt could lose out with consumers.

It turns out that the more salt you eat, the less you can taste it -- so if one company is cutting out salt while its competitors aren't, the competitors' food will taste better. "It's a proven fact," a Kraft Foods (KFT) VP said earlier this year. "When companies sell products with reduced sodium labels, that's pretty much the death of that product."

If companies all cut down on salt at the same time, on the other hand, people's taste buds will recalibrate and foods won't need to contain excessive amounts of sodium to be flavorful. The challenge is getting that to happen.

Some companies are stepping up -- ConAgra (CAG) and Unilever (UL) have both pledged to reduce their products' sodium content across the board over a period of several years. Nestle and Kellogg (K), on the other hand, were recently grilled about their products' high salt levels by a government committee in Canada.

It's no minor issue -- studies have strongly linked sodium with both strokes and cardiovascular disease. A majority of people consume a lot more sodium than they should -- and researchers in the UK recently suggested that recommended daily intake levels were set too high to begin with.

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