The unholy trinity of bad-for-you food ingredients has traditionally consisted of MSG, trans fats and sugar. Recently, however, a fourth nutrition sin has been added to the mix: salt. Health and consumer groups have been pressuring food processors to reduce the amount of salt in processed food products, but changing salt content could affect more than just consumers’ blood pressure.
Our bodies need it to function, but many health groups say we’re getting far too much salt in our diets, leading to a host of health problems such as stroke, heart disease and even stomach cancer.
AWASH - the Australian Division of World Action on Salt & Health - has said that, after smoking and physical inactivity, high blood pressure accounts for the third greatest burden of disease in Australia. Researchers at Deakin University have found that increased salt intake is directly linked to increased blood pressure - and high blood pressure is the single biggest modifiable risk factor for stroke.
Given the huge burden that excess salt consumption places on our society, it’s no wonder that groups like AWASH are aiming to raise consumer awareness of the effects of a high-salt diet. If, as National Stroke Foundation CEO Dr Erin Lalor has said, reducing average salt intake by just one gram per day worldwide could prevent thousands of deaths from stroke each year, the solution seems clear: reduce salt intake and we reduce the health burden on our society.
But is it really that simple?
Although sodium occurs naturally in a range of foods, “It’s important to remember that it’s not just the salt people add at the table that matters,” said Professor Bruce Neal, Senior Director at the George Institute and Chairman of AWASH. “Most salt is hidden in processed and fast foods so that even people who don’t add salt are still eating far more salt than is good for them.”
Because of this, health and consumer groups are pressuring food manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt in their processed food products. The problem is that it’s not as simple as just adding less salt during processing and - hey presto - everyone’s healthier and happier. Removing salt from many processed foods can have a major impact on shelf life, food safety and consumer acceptance.
Dr John Lucey of the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisonsin-Madison has argued that, since salt acts as a preservative in cheese, modifying the salt content can provide a hospitable environment for bacteria to flourish, reducing shelf life and increasing the risk of food poisoning. This is true of many processed foods.
Lucey also commented that the push for a sodium reduction in foods “may not be stemming from a push by consumers, but from a push by government and regulatory agencies”, citing a lack of consumer interest in low-sodium cheeses as a specific example. Other food producers have noted a similar reluctance from consumers to take up low-salt versions of their products: The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Heinz no-added-salt Baked Beanz account for only 1.3% of Heinz’s overall baked beans sales, with customers preferring the standard variety with a much higher salt content.
Recent research from Deakin University has shown that reduced salt labels affect consumers’ taste perception, making reduced salt products seem less tasty compared with the same products that aren’t labelled as low in salt. Researchers from the University’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition (C-PAN) offered 50 participants the same type of soup with three different salt levels and different labels, and asked them to add salt if they felt it was needed.
The results were surprising. Dr Gie Liem said, “We found that when a product was labelled as ‘reduced salt’, people believed the food was not as tasty as the unlabelled version” - even if they actually contained the same amount of salt. “The negative taste experience resulted in more people adding more salt to the soup than when such a label was not present.”
But that’s not all. “Interestingly, the Heart Foundation Tick did not influence taste perception,” Dr Liem said. “This study highlights that promoting salt reduction as part of front-of-pack labelling can have a negative effect on how consumers perceive the taste of the product and on salt use.”
What these results suggest is that we need to consider the best approach to reducing salt in processed foods - and communicating this to consumers.
So, what’s happening in the industry in terms of salt? Here are some recent developments:
Unilever has made a public call for ideas on reducing salt. The company’s Open Innovation website section details its “challenges and wants” and encourages innovation partners to submit ideas for collaboration.
One of Unilever’s challenges and wants is to reduce the amount of sodium in food. It claims to have already reduced salt in its products by up to 25%, but is hoping to decrease sodium content by a further 15 to 20% while still delivering on flavour.
Unilever said it is looking for alternatives to salt. “That might mean ingredients that provide taste without sodium - but it could also mean technology that helps us understand ways that consumers can experience satisfying taste while enjoying food with reduced salt levels,” its website said. “Solutions could be highly specific - a way to improve particular products or dishes - or could apply to the way people consume salt more generally.”
Salt alternatives, taste perceptions, salt education and methods for professional kitchens are some of the concepts Unilever is exploring. It stipulates that any new salt-reduction technologies or methods should not involve artificial additives or e-numbers or include currently available potassium salt blends. For the company to adopt a new method or technology, Unilever says it should “enable a reduction in sodium of at least 20%”.
This Israeli-based company has developed a tomato concentrate product that it claims enhances taste and flavour and can be used in place of artificial flavours and flavour enhancers. LycoRed claims that using its product can actually be cheaper in the long run for food processors as it replaces expensive flavouring ingredients.
Dr Sam Bernhardt, Director of New Food Ingredients at Lycored, said, “After five years of intense research and development, we were able to create LycoRed SANTE as a healthy, natural solution for the industry with umami and kokumi flavour characteristics. LycoRed SANTE can be applied to a wide variety of food systems, such as culinary products, soups, sauces, baked products, snacks and protein-based formulations.”
SANTE is available in liquid and powder form, is heat and pH stable and suitable for ambient, frozen, baked, cooked and fried products, the company says. It can be applied as a seasoning, dusted on or mixed into food or dough mixes.
Rather than simply replacing salt, Givaudan says it assesses the role of salt in a product, then reassembles it by using its flavour- and texture-enhancing products “to maintain the desirable salt profile without recreating the associated negative health issues”.
“It is now well understood in the food industry that salt is a very efficient and complex taste enhancer that goes beyond just making food taste salty. Salt has a range of taste effects over time which we have named ‘The Salt Curve’,” said Laith Wahbi, Global Product Manager, Savoury.
Givaudan has developed Sense It Salt language - a way of describing the way the physical and taste effects of salt in food can be broken down into distinct temporal phases that influence the flavour profile of the food.
“We saw that the taste profile changed across the salt curve and concluded that the term ‘salty’ was no longer sufficient to describe the taste effects of salt or what happens sensorially when it is added, removed or replaced,” said Sophie Davodeau, Global Head of Sensory.
“The development of Givaudan’s Sense It Salt language allows us to accurately assess the consequences of reducing salt and the performance of flavours or ingredients that are used to restore the taste of low-sodium products.”
A personal brush with high blood pressure led Hampstead Farms’ founder, Kevin Stone, to drastically alter his diet. Struggling to find low-sodium cooking sauces in the supermarket, Stone set out to make his own. Hampstead Farm now produces four cooking sauces that have no added salt, no preservatives and are gluten free. The range includes a ginger and lime stir-fry sauce, a madras curry base and a spicy arrabiata pasta sauce.
According to the company’s website, when the products were tested on Brighton locals, 99% of those surveyed were happy with the salt levels of the sauces - despite none being added.
Sonneveld claims that adding 1% of its product to bread can reduce the salt required by up to 50% without negatively affecting the dough characteristics and flavour of the final product. A bonus of Proson Taste is that 10% less yeast is required when using the product.
Goodman Fielder has reduced the salt content in its largest-selling bread product, Wonder White, by up to 20%. The company announced its intention to roll out the salt-reduced bread on the eve of World Salt Awareness Week.
Wonder White has received the Heart Foundation Tick for meeting the organisation’s strict standards on saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and fibre. “The beauty of this move is that customers don’t have to change their purchasing habits to eat healthier. The company is doing the hard work for them,” said Professor Bruce Neal. “This is exactly what our ‘Drop the Salt’ campaign calls for - removal of salt at the source.”
This smartphone application is the result of a collaboration between Bupa Australia and the George Institute. Users simply scan barcodes on packaged food products and the app suggests healthier alternatives. Since being launched in January 2012, the app has been downloaded by 150,000 iPhone users, with an Android version released recently.
“The app is being used by doctors to help patients manage their health risks, but also by parents to teach their children about healthier eating, using real-time, on-the-spot examples as they consider what goes into the shopping trolley,” said Dr Stan Goldstein from Bupa.
The assault on sodium levels
Campaigns such as AWASH’s Drop the Salt and World Salt Awareness Week (26 March to 2 April 2012) aim to educate consumers about the dangers of a high-salt diet. But given consumer reluctance to embrace low-salt products, it seems the pressure may continue to fall on the food processing industry to reduce salt in processed food products.
While salt reduction is a simple solution to a host of health problems, it’s clear that many factors - including safety, shelf life and consumer acceptance - must be considered before we launch into an all-out attack on salt in processed foods.