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Taco Bell testing lower-sodium menu

Chain aims to cut sodium across menu by 23 percent

Taco Bell has been quietly testing a reduced-sodium version of its menu at 150 units in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for the past two months, the chain's president said Tuesday.

Greg Creed, president and chief concept officer of the Yum! Brands division, offered details of the initiative after receiving the Legacy Award during the People Report Best Practices Conference, a human resources gathering in Addison, Texas.

“One of our initiatives has been to reduce the sodium content of food across the entire menu,” he said. “So we have been working very diligently over the last two years to get out 23 percent of the sodium across our menu.”

That 23-percent reduction will reduce about a million pounds of sodium a year from Taco Bell’s menu, he said, adding that a systemwide rollout is likely.

“The first place we actually tested this is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. So 150 restaurants over the last few months have been eating great-tasting Taco Bell food with 23-percent less sodium,” he said. “And the great news is: No one even knows we’ve done it. That’s when you know you’ve been successful.”

The reduced-sodium menu has yielded no complaints, Creed said.

“The food team back in [Taco Bell’s California base of] Irvine did a great job of replacing the sodium taste with the taste of other spices and other ingredients … which we think is a great thing for the brand and great thing for the industry,” he said.

VIDEO: President and chief concept officer of the Yum! Brands division offers details on reduced-sodium initiative

Yum! Brands Inc. of Louisville, Ky., which is also the parent company of KFC and Pizza Hut, said in December 2008 that it was looking to reduce salt in menus as public scrutiny mounted over sodium’s health effects, such as a contribution to heart disease. Burger King and Au Bon Pain announced similar initiatives.

"Sodium reduction remains a major challenge to the food industry in terms of taste and formulation as salt is a vitally important compound in cooking,” Yum said in its 2008 corporate responsibility report. “We recognize we have an opportunity and a responsibility to make our consumers aware of their sodium intake and to offer food with lower sodium content."

In early October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded a $1.9 million grant to five jurisdictions for sodium-reduction initiatives involving restaurants and schools.

The three-year grant will be split between New York City, Los Angeles County, Shasta County in California, Shawnee County in Kansas, and Broome and Schenectady counties in New York.

“Sodium reduction is a public health imperative that would benefit everyone,” said Darwin Labarthe, director of the CDC’s division for heart disease and stroke prevention. “We must continue to build the public health capacity for reducing sodium consumption by working on strategies at the national, state and local levels.”

Programs like Taco Bell’s sodium-reduction initiative led People Report to award the Legacy Award to Creed this year, said Joni Thomas Doolin, founder and chief executive of the consultancy.

“Greg is running a huge brand, and he’s been in Yum Brands a long time,” Doolin said. “His ‘Smart With Heart’ and wellness initiatives really dazzled me. They started it and rolled it out in the middle of recession, and it’s all about making their company better for their people. They had the courage to do it.”

Doolin said Creed is a great example of “conscience capitalism.”

“They are not doing this as a PR stunt,” she said. “They are doing it to make the world a better place, their communities a better place and, by the way, they are also making a whole lot of money for their shareholders.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].

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