Boston Market is the latest chain to announce nutritional changes to some of its core menu items as it rolls out mashed potatoes, stuffing, cornbread, gravy and meat loaf with significantly reduced levels of sodium.

Sara Bittorf, the 458-unit chain’s chief brand officer, said reduced sodium levels had been on Boston Market’s agenda since 2010.

“We’re all seeing the same headlines that everyone else sees about health concerns and the amount of everything that you’re supposed to have in your diet,” Bittorf said. “We want to serve food that people can feel good about,” she said, noting that the chain already had lean proteins and other healthful items. “When we looked at our sodium, we felt that we could do better.”

After a series of internal and market tests, the chain has reduced sodium levels in its mashed potatoes by 26 percent, poultry gravy by 50 percent, cornbread by 30 percent, stuffing by 19 percent and meat loaf by 18 percent.

Cornbread is among Boston Market's core menu items that have reduced levels of sodiumBittorf said the testing began with the chain’s research and development team, which worked on creating lower-sodium recipes of core products that taste like the original versions.

“We haven’t found the secret salt replacer,” Bittorf said, so different strategies need to be applied for each item.

She said sometimes sodium reduction can be accomplished through using a different shape of salt, such as flaky sea salt that has a larger surface area and can deliver the same salty taste with less actual salt. Other times, increasing the amount of other flavors compensates for the missing sodium.

Once the R&D team develops the new item they present it to taste panels within the company. If panelists can’t tell the difference between the new and old versions then the items are tested in select locations and then in other test markets.

Unit-level management was made aware of the tests but the other employees didn’t know they were happening. “We feel it’s a much cleaner test, without bias, if people don’t know that there’s a difference [between what’s in the restaurant during the test and what was there previously],” Bittorf noted.

The test is not deemed successful unless customers can’t tell the difference between the products, she added. Boston Market surveys customers both before and after the test to gather this information.  

“Sometimes decreasing salt allows some of the other flavors to come out,” she added, noting that the company’s internal taste panel found the new mashed potatoes to be creamier and more buttery than the higher-salt version, although customers didn’t seem to notice any difference at all.

Although five core items have been reintroduced with lower sodium levels, Bittorf said that modifying the macaroni and cheese recipe has been more difficult. “We’re not taking any chances with the crown jewels, and mac cheese is one of them,” she said.

However, a lower-sodium macaroni and cheese has been in test in about 40 restaurants since January and will probably be there for a total of about 60 days. If the test is successful then it will likely be rolled out one distribution center at a time to make sure any problems with production can be resolved.

Bittorf noted that the chain is still trying to reduce sodium in other items, including chicken noodle soup, which is proving to be particularly challenging. “That’s one where I don’t know if we’re going to get the meaningful reduction we were looking for,” she said.

Instead, the company’s considering adding a separate, lower-sodium soup that simply will taste different, rather than alienating the loyal devotees of the chain’s current version.

The menu changes at Boston Market come as restaurant chains increasingly roll out more healthful items. Burger King took a stab at offering lower calorie core items with the introduction last September of Satisfries, which contain about 30 percent fewer calories than the chain’s regular fries. Chick-fil-A has said it has been reducing the sodium content of some of its items since 2010.

A more common approach is to leave the core items alone and introduce more healthful alternatives, such as McDonald’s Deluxe McWrap or Cracker Barrel’s Wholesome Fixin’s menu that has items with fewer than 600 calories. However, public health advocates have argued that unless chains improve the nutritional value of their core items, their changes won’t have substantive effects on the health of their customers.

Contact Bret Thorn:
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary