method in which consumer utility functions may be altered is through consumer education efforts regarding the health effects of sodium consumption. This means, in essence, that an initially less palatable food may be accepted if the consumer wishes or is motivated to act on a health education message about the benefits of lower-sodium food. This may not, however, be necessary if the change in taste is minor or not readily perceived. It is important to note that in a recent consumer survey, when Americans were asked about the impact that convenience, healthfulness, price, and taste had on their decision to buy foods and beverages, taste was the highest ranked, the top choice by more than 80 percent of those surveyed (IFIC, 2008).
The value of each characteristic of a food can be estimated using a hedonic price function. Salt taste, as one characteristic, has an implicit value associated with it. Many analyses have estimated hedonic price functions for foods (Shi and Price, 1998), but they have not specifically addressed salt taste, a potentially positive attribute, or sodium content, a potentially negative attribute, in the analyses. Although specific values associated with salt taste and sodium content are not available in the literature, consumer theory suggests some considerations. Specifically, it will be essential for consumers to understand the importance of reducing sodium intake through education efforts that alter their utility functions. Furthermore, because consumers may understand the importance of reducing sodium intake but still have a preference for high salt content based on taste, existing consumer theory would support an incremental approach to adjusting taste preferences if possible. However, an inevitable unknown is specifically to what extent and at what speed salt taste preferences can be changed. This, in turn, suggests that efforts to encourage consumers to avoid certain practices, such as combining foods to enhance salt taste or automatically salting foods without tasting first, may be beneficial.
In addition to preferences for the characteristics of foods, food prices also influence consumer purchases. In general, most foods have inelastic price elasticities of demand (see, for example, Huang and Lin, 2000), which means that consumers are not very sensitive to changes in the prices of foods; they will reduce their purchases by only a small amount if the price increases. Low-income households tend to be more price sensitive than high-income households, but the differences are quite small (Lin and Guthrie, 2007). However, if prices of foods with lower sodium content are sufficiently higher than those with higher sodium content, consumer purchases of these foods can be substantially reduced even with relatively inelastic price elasticities of demand. Reduced-fat and reduced-sodium products often cost more than their regular counterparts (Frazao and Allshouse, 1996; Liese et al., 2007). A 1993 survey of 37 food categories found that nutritionally improved versions of foods in 81 percent of the surveyed food categories cost more than regular versions (Frazao and Allshouse, 1996).