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Salt reduction - not a quick fix, apparently

On average we consume too much sodium. Processed foods are responsible for almost 75% of our intake. There are several options and alternatives on the market to reduce the sodium content. Some advocate that the food industry lacks a sense of urgency. The other side of the coin is that salt reduction seems to require a gradual approach.


Most of the sodium consumers ingest, consists of NaCl table salt which is added to processed foods and which is being used in the kitchen and/or restaurants.
Salt has emerged as a successful ingredient/processing aid for processed foods. First of all, it is very cheap. It adds flavour (logically) while also enhancing other flavours. In addition, salt supresses ‘unwanted’ flavours such as bitterness. In terms of texture, salt plays a crucial role in certain foodstuffs, such as in meat products. Take for example a Frankfurter. Because salt acts as a binding agent for the proteins, the sausage has a certain bite. If the salt content is sufficiently lowered, this bite disappears. Another function of salt is in maintaining the shelf life of certain products. Again in meat products, NaCl lowers the water activity to allow for a longer shelf life. Finally, salt is also a processing aid. Cooking salt inhibits the growth of unwanted bacteria during the fermentation of sauerkraut. It also strengthens the gluten structure during the bread-baking process.

Vital function
Apart from fulfilling various roles in foods, salt has also a vital function in maintaining human health (see box on this page). We need certain amounts of sodium to keep going, although minimum requirements are somewhat fuzzy. The literature suggest base lines varying from 1 gram to 2.4 grams of table salt per day.
However, it is not the base lines that are worrisome, but the average intake among consumers which in some countries exceeds the recommendation set the World Health Organization: 5 grams of table salt per day. According to the latest survey, European consumers ingest between 8 and 12 grams of salt per day (Source: European Commission, 2012). Within the EU there are huge differences. For example, Germany, Cyprus, Bulgaria Latvia report the lowest estimates of salt intakes (respectively 6.3, 6.5, 7.1 and 7.3 grams). The Czech Republic reported the highest estimate of salt intakes at 13.6 grams per day, followed by Slovenia, Hungary and Portugal (12.7 grams, 12.5 grams and 12.3 grams respectively).

17,7 million deaths
The differences in salt intake between the above countries can be explained - to a certain degree - by different diets. In general, the increased popularity of
processed foods has contributed to a higher sodium intake. Highly processed foods are increasingly available and becoming more affordable. People around the world are consuming more energy-dense foods that are high in saturated fats, trans fats, sugars, and salt. Parallel to this development, the consumption of fruits and vegetables is lagging behind.
It is the increase in sodium intake and a decrease/stagnation of potassium intake (via fruits and vegetables) which is one of the major causes of hypertension, a precursor of cardiovascular diseases. According to the World health Organization, 17.7 million inhabitants die each year as a result of this affliction. The root causes being smoking, a lack of physical activity and dietary patterns (too much salt, not enough fruits and vegetables).

Staple foods
As mentioned before, the WHO has recommended an intake of 5 grams of table salt per day. This recommendation has been translated into a target which the WHO Member states have agreed upon. This means that by 2025 the average sodium intake needs to be reduced by 30 percent. Again, this will be a concerted effort which requires policies and actions from the public and the private sector.
Zooming in on the private sector, the focus lies predominantly on reformulation. This makes sense as processed foods account for 75 percent of salt intake.
In most European countries, a few staple food items are responsible for the highest share of salt intake, i.e. bread, cereals and bakery products are currently the main dietary sources of salt. Typically, these are followed by meat and meat products, then cheese and dairy products. In the reformulation process, food manufacturers have various options to reduce the sodium content in their foodstuffs: reduction without replacements, the use of flavour enhancers, physical distribution, increasing the availability of salt in the mouth and the multisensory approach.

Eliminating excess salt
First of all, when removing salt without replacing this component with alternatives, the trick is of course to reduce the salt content without affecting taste, texture and the other functionalities.
For some manufacturers and their products, this option is viable. A survey from the Netherlands (2007) showed huge variations in salt content between similar products. For example, in white bread the difference between the low and high end is roughly 50 percent. One word of caution: in most cases the recipes of the compared products are not identical. Nevertheless, the comparison demonstrated the discrepancy and subsequent room for improvement.
There are two ways to implement salt reduction: gradually or abruptly. In most cases, the literature and case studies suggest that gradually reducing salt content is the most effective method. First of all, consumers are used to a certain taste profile. If the products they regularly buy, become too ‘bland’ all of a sudden, chances are he or she will revert to another product which is saltier. Therefore, a gradual reduction eases the consumer into a lower sodium diet without ‘disturbing his palate’. There have been several studies conducted on this topic, one by which the salt reduction of 25 percent in bread over a period of 6 weeks did not have any adverse effect on consumer preferences.

Loss of market share
The point with gradual reduction without compensation is that the real world is a bit more complicated than an isolated study. This is where the market aspects come into play. What if manufacturer X in a certain product group gradually lowers the sodium content and his competitor does not? First of all, X stands to lose market share and - secondly - the consumer’s acceptance of lower sodium product types is less likely to happen. Therefore, a sectoral approach seems to be the most effective option. If the entire industry in a certain segment pulls its weight, the impact will be bigger and possible competitive (dis)advantages will be neutralized.
For example, in the Netherlands the bakery sector has committed itself to lower gradually sodium levels in its products. Already in 2009, the Dutch Association for the Bakery Sector collectively agreed upon a NaCl-reduction from 2.5 to 2.1 percent (dry matter). In 2011, the sector decided to lower this percentage to 1.9 and ultimately 1.8 percent. The sector also monitors yearly if its members adhere to this norm which has been put into law with a mandatory maximum level. Bakers that exceed this level are to be penalized.

An independent 2016 study from the Dutch National Institute for Pubic Health and the Environment (RIVM) showed that the above approach has worked for bread ( -19 percent reduction) and for other product types such as certain sauces, soups, potato crisps and processed legumes and vegetables. However, in other food groups, such as meat cold cuts and cheese, the salt contents were not significantly different. Interestingly enough, the RIVM did not measure an actual reduction in salt intake. In other words, despite reduction in food stuffs consumers still manage to consume too much sodium. The RIVM therefore concludes that food reformulation is not enough and should be accompanied with other methods such as reduction of portion sizes, discretionary salt and a higher intake of fruits and vegetables.
The study also highlights the limitation of reduction without substitution. Previous Unilever research indicated the potential of this approach is limited to a reduction of 15 percent. Luckily, there are other routes by which the reduced salt is being substituted by other components.

Heavier ‘guns’

In order to obtain significant reductions - in the range from 25 to 40 percent - heavier guns are needed. There are various salts, other than NaCl, which don’t contain sodium. To mention a few: potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, calcium carbonate or ammonium chloride. All of these salts more or less emulate - in certain blends - the properties of salt. There is however one disadvantage, namely the bitter taste. Although consumers experience this bitterness in varying degrees, this taste profile is not preferable. Worth mentioning are two studies in which potassium chloride has been used in bread and meatballs, resulting in sodium reduction levels between 32.3 and 50 percent.
Fortunately, the food industry can rely on an array of salt blends that contain sodium, an alternative salt(s) and additives that mask the bitter taste. Just to name a few: Sub4Salt from Jungbunzlauer, Pansalt, SaltWise (Cargill) or Suprasel OneGrain from AkzoNobel Salt Specialties.
The latter supplier claims it can reduce sodium in the range 40 to 50 percent. ‘Our product contains sodium, potassium and aromas that mask bitter tones’, Tom van Zeeburg, business development manager for AkzoNobel Salt Specialties says. ‘We have a partnership with Givaudan, which supplies the aroma component. The 50 percent Suprasel One Grain-product is based on a yeast extract, specifically designed for breads and culinary (ready meals etc., ed).’
The main advantage of Suprasel is that the functionalities - taste, texture, shelf life - of salt in foods are maintained, Van Zeeburg says. ‘If the industry as a whole wants to reach the target of 35 percent reduction in 2025, these tools are needed. Looking at the volumes we have shifted over the years, the industry increasingly makes use of salt replacements. This is especially the case in product groups in which salt plays an important role, such as bread, ready meals and cured meats.’

Besides salt blends, flavour enhancers are also available. There are roughly two types of flavour enhancers: glutamates and non-glutamates. The working principle of these components, however, is similar: the stimulation of taste receptors in the mouth and throat which enables the sodium channel through which sodium ions pass to stay open longer, thus increasing salt perception.
In the glutamates group, MSG, associated with umami taste, is probably the best known variety. Although MSG has been in the news negatively (Chinese restaurant syndrome), there is a scientific consensus that it has no detrimental health effects in concentrations used in food products. Worth mentioning is soy sauce, used in a powdered form to season soups, salad dressings and stir-fried pork. By adding soy sauce powder, salt reductions in the range of 29 to 50 percent were achieved (Wageningen UR, Kikkoman).

Also part of the glutamates group are yeast extracts and HVP (hydrolysed vegetable protein). Both components contain glutamate but in very low amounts compared to MSG. For example, yeast extracts are made up of glutamic acid, peptides, nucleotides, vitamin B and other flavourings. Besides giving food the umami taste, yeast extracts also enhance salty taste. Because of this dual functionality, yeast extracts enable salt reduction in the 40 to 50 percent range.
DSM Food Specialties is one of the major suppliers of yeast extracts, which the company has split into two ranges: Maxarome for culinary and Maxarite for bakery and dairy. According to DSM, these products make it possible to reduce salt by 30 to 50 percent. ‘We have an unrivalled expertise in yeast extracts, as well as other advanced taste modulation solutions’, Frank Meijer, Global Product Application Development Manager Savoury Ingredients says. ‘We are continually adding new capabilities to the taste and flavour toolboxes. DSM’s advanced biotech expertise goes beyond yeast and yeast extracts, we also offer a wide range of enzyme solutions, as well as competences in advanced bio-preservation.’

Flashing light
Finally, there are also physical options to reduce salt, one of which is based on the ‘flashing light-principle’. People are more likely to notice a flashing light than a continuous light. The same applies to taste. If a certain taste is being delivered in ‘peaks’, the peak will be experienced more intensely, ensuring an overall stronger taste perception. Several tests have proven that this is also the case with salt. By distributing salt in even layers in a solid product, for example lunch meat or bacon, the overall salt content can be lowered without having to add alternatives. Dutch company Vion has conducted research in this field.
One would think that this method could only work in solid foods with low water activity preventing the salt crystals from travelling through the food anf therefore make the contrast less noticeable. Previous Unilever research has shown that the flashing light method also works in a liquid matrix, namely in soup. In the experiment, the salt was applied to pieces of meat (chicken) and not dissolved in the broth. By using this technique, the salt content could be lowered by 15 percent compared with the ‘control’ soup. In other applications, such as lunch meat, salt reductions up to 25 percent are possible.

Struggle to meet salt targets
Given the arsenal of weaponry to reduce salt in processed foods, one would be inclined to think the industry has made some strides in reducing the salt content of its products significantly. In some cases, the sector has been able to make a dent, most notably in bread. This is for example the case in the Netherlands and in the UK. In other categories, the industry struggles to meet reduction targets. Early this year, the Guardian published an article which stated that the food industry will miss almost every salt target set to lower the amount of salt in processed food. The article was based upon a survey carried out by CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health). After examining all 28 categories of processed food, researchers could not find any other foodstuff apart from bread coming close to meeting that target. In other countries, similar articles have been published. Another worrying statistic: in the Netherlands the industry managed the cut down the salt content in a number of foods. However, subsequent analysis showed that the actual salt intake didn’t go down as demonstrated by the RIVM study. Clearly, salt reduction is one side of the medal. Other measures including communication and awareness campaigns are also needed to tackle this complex issue.


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