Shifting preferences are showing that fat is no longer the largest concern for consumers when grocery shopping. Instead, consumers prefer foods that tout reduced levels of salt or sugar to those with low or no fat, reported participants of a panel discussion at the 2014 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual meeting and food expo last month.

According to the panel, more than 50 percent of consumers are interested in products with lower salt and sugar, though new products in the US continue to boast low or no-fat attributes.

“Consumers know they need to take care of their health,” says Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for the Mintel Group, Ltd. “They want to lose weight, but they don’t like the idea of dieting. They know that living a healthy lifestyle is all about moderation.”

Panelists said reductions in sodium and sugar are what consumers associate with better health and more than 50 percent of consumers rate these reductions as more important than calorie, carbohydrate and fat reduction.

“And yet in the US market, it’s all about low- or no-fat claims,” Dornblaser says. “Products that make a low-sugar, low-calorie or low-sodium claim are less prevalent. In Europe and the rest of the world, foods with ‘no- or low-fat’ labels are less common.”

The panel said many US food producers have been slowly reducing levels of salt and sugar since they know consumers are reading the label.

Dornblaser says products promoting less sodium tend to focus on the claim they also taste good to calm consumers’ association of salt with taste.

As a way of mitigating the risks of high blood pressure and preventing death from heart disease, government representatives say they are ready to reduce sodium in consumers’ diets.

In June, the Associated Press reported FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says sodium is of a “huge interest and concern” to the agency which has plans to soon establish federal guidelines on ways to reduce the level of sodium in foods.

In May, the American Heart Association released a report detailing the complex issue of reducing sodium, but stated the success of new technological approaches to reducing sodium “will depend on product availability, health effects (both intended and unintended), research and development investments, quality and taste of reformulated foods, supply chain management, operational modifications, consumer acceptance and cost.”

The IFT panel discussion highlighted a variety of new trends including consumers preference for taste as the most important food attribute. The panel said 36 percent of consumers put importance on locally made or grown food, though the same percentage deemed “artisan” food, or food made by hand or a small firm, as important. Thirty-three percent of consumers also stated “organic” was an important food attribute.

According to the panel, the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines are expected to again recommend lower levels of sugar and salt in food products.

“Consumers look to flavor first, health attributes second,” Dornblaser concludes. “Any [food producer] has to keep that in mind. Consumers aren’t afraid of sugar or salt; they’re afraid of too much sugar or salt.”