Campbell Soup's new CEO stirred up some controversy Tuesday when she announced plans to add salt to a once lower-sodium line of soups.
Speaking before nearly 100 investment analysts, Denise Morrison said the company -- in response to taste complaints about its Select Harvest soups -- tweaked the recipes and added some salt.
"People bought the soup because they really loved the idea of simple ingredients. But once they tried it they didn't come back," said Juli Mandel Sloves, a spokeswoman for the Campbell Soup Co. "Not everyone is willing to make a taste tradeoff; not everyone is looking for low sodium."
While analysts praised the move, the Center for Science in the Public Interest panned it, saying it put profit before public health.
"Why not improve their soups with more and better-quality vegetables and chicken, or with herbs and spices? I suppose that's a question that answers itself, and the answer is money," CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement. "Campbell enjoys a huge profit margin selling what are often basically overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water."
When Campbell first introduced its Select line of soups, they contained up to 800 mg of sodium per serving. When the company reformulated many of its soups to contain less sodium in 2008, the salt in the rebranded Select Harvest dropped to 480 mg. Now a serving will contain 650 mg, Mandel Sloves said.
"It's higher than it has been, but not as high as when it was Campbell's Select," she said.
The company will extend its Healthy Request line from 25 soups to 33, all of which are reduced-sodium and carry the American Heart Association's stamp of approval. Healthy Request soups average 410 mg of sodium.
"For people looking for low sodium, that line has always been way to get their favorite flavors in lower sodium option," Mandel Sloves said. "We provide a lot of options for people so they can choose the soup they want."
But CSPI argues that by adding salt to some of its soups, Campbell is limiting healthy choices for its customers.
"Consumers are always free to add salt, but it's impossible for them to get rid of the new salt Campbell has added," Jacobson said in a statement. "Why not trust consumers to add as much or as little as they want?"
A recent report from the Institute of Medicine urged the Food and Drug Administration to set limits on the amount of salt in food. The authors said that a 10 percent reduction in sodium intake could save a million people from heart attacks and strokes each year. It could also save billions of health care dollars, they said.
The FDA currently recommends no more than 2,300 mg -- roughly a teaspoon -- of salt per day. But most Americans get about 3,400 mg per day, according to the IOM report. The authors suggest gradually reducing the amount of salt allowed in food to give the American palate a chance to adjust.
But for the Campbell Soup Co., the added salt could contribute to a much-needed boost in sales.
"The reality is, if it doesn't taste good people are not going to buy it," Mandel Sloves said. "Many food companies have been challenged over the last few years and we are no exception."
Keith Ayoob, director of the Rose R. Kennedy Center Nutrition Clinic at Albert Einstein College in New York City, said the move by Campbell shouldn't stir the pot.
"I don't have a problem with this, because they offer plenty of low-salt choices, and this is a move in response to consumer complaints," he said, adding that the company has been at the forefront of salt-reduction efforts for years. "It may be a sign that you can take sodium levels lower, but there's a floor below which consumers start to resist."