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Less Sodium Is Good for the Heart, But Is It Mmmm-mmmm Good?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's always risky to tinker with an icon.

But that's just what Campbell's has done. This month the company is rolling out a new version of its best-selling tomato soup. The can looks pretty much the same as always. Inside, though, there's much less salt.

Campbell's has been working for years to reduce the sodium content of its soups. It has taken 40 years -- the last four in real earnest, according to Chor San Khoo, the company's vice president for global nutrition and health -- to figure out how to cut back the salt without compromising flavor. The new tomato soup has 480 milligrams (mg) per serving, down from 710 in the most recent iteration.

Campbell's has lowered the sodium in more than 90 soups by 25 to 50 percent. Some have been lower-sodium variations, and others are replacements for the original variety, such as the condensed kids' soups, which lowered their per-serving sodium level to 480 mg last year from 600. This year Campbell's cut the sodium in its Healthy Request soups to 410 mg from 480 mg.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend healthy adults restrict their sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg per day. People with high blood pressure, blacks and middle-aged and older adults (and that's an awful lot of us) should keep it to 1,500 or fewer.

But just ditching the salt shaker isn't going to get you very far. One study cited in the Dietary Guidelines shows that we get 77 percent of our sodium from processed and fast foods; 12 percent comes from foods in which salt is naturally present and only 6 percent comes from the shaker.

At a time when sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are under scrutiny for their role in fueling obesity, it's important not to lose focus on salt. Of course, our bodies require some salt to maintain adequate fluid levels in our cells. But as the Dietary Guidelines point out, for most people there is a direct and dose-specific relationship between salt intake and blood pressure: The more you eat, the higher your blood pressure. And since high blood pressure is a major contributor to heart disease and stroke -- respectively the first- and third-leading causes of deaths in the United States -- limiting salt is clearly a personal and public health imperative.

But as Khoo notes, while there are plenty of sugar substitutes, there is no substitute for salt. To create its new recipe, Campbell's turned to a proprietary sea salt that contains less sodium than standard, mined salt. The substitution required tinkering with other elements of the recipe to keep flavors -- and things we don't think about, such as pH levels -- in balance. And experience has shown that people won't buy reduced-sodium soup (or other foods) if they don't taste good.

A serving of the new tomato soup provides 690 mg of potassium, or 20 percent of the DV of 3,500 mg. That's important, because adequate potassium intake is vital to controlling blood pressure.

The new soup is not perfect. Some critics will wish it, like its predecessor, didn't contain high-fructose corn syrup. And one might hope a serving provided more than a single gram of fiber, which is just 4 percent of the DV. Those who can't tolerate gluten will bemoan the wheat flour in the recipe; it's there to improve the soup's texture, Khoo says. (Campbell's does offer many gluten-free products; they're listed at http://www.campbellswithoutgluten.com.)

Still, a one-cup serving (a can makes 2½) has just 90 calories, no fat and no cholesterol. As Khoo notes, soup -- especially low-calorie ones such as this -- can help with weight control. Eaten as a first course, it can help fill your belly and cause you to eat fewer calories in the rest of your meal. And it's easy to boost the soup's nutrition content. Reconstitute it with skim milk instead of water and you get 30 percent of the day's needed calcium and 25 percent of the Vitamin D for just 80 added calories. Khoo says she likes to sliver some lettuce and serve it atop her soup to add a bit of crunch and fiber.

Judith Wylie-Rosett, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association (to which Campbell's has contributed $1.8 million over the past three years and with which the company co-sponsors the Go Red for Women heart-health-awareness campaign), notes that Campbell's tomato soup is a legitimate way to add a serving of vegetables to your daily diet.

Wylie-Rosett, who is also a professor of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, adds that the soup contains the antioxidant lycopene, "one of the pigments we're encouraging." She says that "soup is the opposite of a sugary beverage. You eat it slowly, with a spoon." That means you get full, and stay full, longer.

Finally, Wylie-Rosett sees soup, paired with a salad or a sandwich made with high-fiber, low-sodium bread and other healthful ingredients, as a quick and convenient alternative to a less-nutritious fast-food meal.

In any case, Campbell's isn't exactly billing its new soup as health food. There are no health claims on the front of the can; the back says that the soup has no added colors, artificial flavors or MSG.

Campbell's press materials note that Andy Warhol, who helped launch the pop art movement with his series of paintings of Campbell's soup cans, "ate tomato soup every day for lunch for more than 20 years." Given that Warhol -- who died at age 58 (or 59; no one's sure) from complications following gallbladder surgery -- wasn't exactly the picture of health, that's not a statistic I'd call much attention to. In fact, I take it with, er, a grain of salt.

I'm less concerned with what Warhol thought of the old Campbell's tomato soup than with what my kids think of the new one. Connoisseurs of the snow-day feast of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, they didn't much like the idea of anyone's messing with the formula.

The folks at Campbell's will be relieved to hear the verdict: The new soup passed muster with the Huget kids. And, I should add, with their mom and dad. We enjoyed some for lunch, and it wasn't even snowing.

Check out Tuesday's Checkup blog post, in which dietitian Cristin Dillon-Jones defends her affinity for Goldfish crackers. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com/health.

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