Packaging problems: How 50 percent lower sodium only saves you 3 percent

Meats are seen in a deli display at Meats are seen in a deli display at the Acme supermarket store in Lawrenceville, N.J. (March 13, 2007) Photo Credit: AP

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It all started with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When he recently launched an attack against sodium I began thinking that just because salt doesn’t have calories, doesn’t mean I can consume it guiltlessly. No longer would pickles, hot sauce and packaged vegetable soups be personal free-for-alls. I vowed to be as cognizant of my sodium intake.

My first step seemed like an easy one. My deli meat brand of choice, Boar’s Head, offers a “Premium 47 Percent Lower Sodium Oven Roasted Turkey Breast” that is readily available in supermarkets. I’d simply substitute that for the standard Ovengold and reap the rewards.

So you can imagine my shock when, a few weeks later, I headed to the company’s website and discovered that the lower-sodium option contains just 10 fewer milligrams of sodium per serving, 340, than its delicious Ovengold counterpart.

I felt duped.

I wanted answers and I wanted them immediately. How could Boar’s Head advertise a 47 percent lower sodium product that offers all of 2.8 percent less sodium than its full-flavored cousin? I went a little crazy. I figured the fastest way to find out would be to take the unusual step of Tweeting @Boars_Head.

The good people at Boar’s Head responded, via Twitter, within an hour: “You can label a product lower sodium when compared to the USDA average for the product.”

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Sure enough, the next time I headed to the deli counter and looked at the rows of packaged meat awaiting their date with the slicer, I found that caveat listed in minuscule type underneath the oversized Boar’s Head branding. Naturally, that branding included big block letters advertising the 47 percent less sodium. However, the USDA average for a puny 2 ounces of oven roasted turkey breast is 650 milligrams (that’s 27 percent of your daily recommended average for just an eighth of a pound of meat).

Boar’s Head was following the rules.

To be fair, not only did I find every single competing brand at the deli counter to be employing similar advertising stunts, but further investigation revealed that labeling tricks of this kind run rampant in every supermarket department.


So my point in writing this is not to call out Boar’s Head (in fact I applaud their rapid response to my inquiry); rather, it’s to call attention to the various ways all food manufacturers manipulate their labels.

Modern marketers make it easy to believe that you’re choosing a healthy option. They’ll use words like “multigrain” to make you think you’re eating whole grains, they’ll plaster a heart-healthy logo on a product based solely on fiber content, they’ll tout the amount of protein in a food while neglecting to mention the high fat content and they’ll call just about anything “natural.”

So you’re well-served taking the time to investigate beyond just the front of a package and drawing your own guidelines. Carefully inspect not only the icons on the front, but also the nutrition label and ingredients on the back. Don’t let cute icons and catchphrases distract you from noticing the true composition of what you eat.

And, as I learned the hard way, look very, very carefully for the fine print.

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