Food industry & nutrition

Unsavoury reality

We know that too much salt in our diets is bad for us. We also know that packaging reforms are helping consumers make more educated choices. But what is happening in the test kitchens of the world’s food manufacturers? Abi Millar speaks to Mhairi Brown of the World Action on Salt & Health (WASH) and Brian Kennedy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to find out what the industry is doing to help consumers cut their salt intake.

The health consequences of excessive salt consumption are not in doubt. Associated with high blood pressure – which in turn can lead to heart disease and strokes – eating too much sodium is a significant cause of mortality. According to the World Health Organization, around 2.5 million deaths could be prevented every year if global salt consumption were reduced to the recommended level.

This is no small task. Across the globe, the average person consumes 9-12g of salt a day, around twice the recommended maximum intake of 5g a day. And while the figures vary from country to country, only a handful of nations keep their average intake below the recommended level. Some (like Kazakhstan) consume around triple what they should.

It’s a pressing public health issue, and one that governments are beginning to treat as a priority. In 2011, WHO member states agreed to an ambitious target: reducing the population’s salt intake by 30% by 2025. By 2014, 75 countries had a national salt reduction strategy in place.

While these strategies vary widely, a common theme is to increase consumer awareness, for example via public health campaigns or mandatory labeling initiatives. If people know the facts, they can make more informed choices about what they eat, and will naturally shy away from adding salt at the dinner table.

Consumer education, however, is only half the battle. As most countries have acknowledged, the food industry plays a critical role in reducing population salt intake.

“In many countries around the world, including the UK and European countries, USA and Australia, up to 80% of the salt that we eat comes from salt added by the food industry to pre-packaged foods,” says Mhairi Brown, nutritionist at the World Action on Salt & Health (WASH). “Although educating consumers to make healthier choices is very important, it’s incredibly difficult to make a healthy choice when there’s already so much salt in the foods we buy.”

For many manufacturers, then, product reformulation is unavoidable. Although relatively few countries have introduced mandatory sodium caps, many others have voluntary targets, and a few have introduced a salt tax. This means the pressure is on, especially for manufacturers selling across multiple markets.

“By reformulating products to contain fewer ingredients that are known to negatively affect our health, the food industry can play their part in protecting and valuing their customers’ health,” says Brown. “Typically, unhealthy foods are cheaper and tend to be promoted more by supermarkets. The food industry must do more to make sure that healthier options are available at lower prices, or that all products available are lower in salt, as well as sugar and saturated fat.”

WASH, a global NGO established in 2005, aims to improve the health of populations by achieving a gradual reduction in salt intake. It was born out of CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health), the initiative behind the UK’s salt reduction programme. This was hugely successful: salt intake in the UK reportedly fell by 15% between 2003 and 2011, coinciding with a fall in population blood pressure and deaths from heart attacks and strokes.

Although the CASH template can’t be replicated exactly in other countries, its overall goals are the same. WASH members work to lobby their respective governments, as well as encouraging multinational food companies to reduce salt in their products.

“We are constantly trying to have a progressive dialogue with the food industry. We want to work with them in reducing global salt consumption, and a collaborative effort is the quickest way to getting action,” says Brown.

Many companies, intent on reducing salt without compromising marketability, have taken a phased approach. According to the FDA, “People usually don’t notice small reductions (about 10 to 15 percent) in sodium”, and consumer tastes can be adjusted slowly over time. In many cases, salt can be replaced to some degree with flavour-enhancing herbs and spices.

That said, the task isn’t always straightforward. Salt has been used for thousands of years within food manufacturing and preservation, and its functions often extend beyond enhancing the flavour.

As Brian Kennedy of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) explains: “Sodium in foods provides more than just taste – it also plays a crucial role in the safety, texture, and proper leavening of certain foods. Unfortunately, no other single ingredient currently performs all the functions that sodium does on its own.”

As a trade association representing the world’s largest food and beverage companies, the GMA works to help its members with product innovation. Kennedy says some of them are looking toward alternative salts.

“Some companies are replacing sodium compounds with potassium, magnesium or calcium compounds,” he says. “These alternatives may offer some of the same technical functions of sodium, but they often cannot be substituted one-for-one as they contribute less saltiness and balance to overall flavour profiles while adding bitter and metallic off-notes. Furthermore, these alternative compounds have to be evaluated on a product-by-product basis for food safety and shelf-life perspectives to ensure they are appropriate substitutions.”

Other companies are using technologies that enable them to change the particle size or shape.

“Micronised sodium chloride crystals, which can be sprayed topically on foods, dissolve more quickly on the tongue and provide a concentrated salty taste with less sodium per gram,” he says. “This technology has been applied in snack products such as potato chips or crackers. Hollow particles of salt can also be used in foods to reduce sodium intake while maintaining a salty taste.”

Further reductions in sodium, he says, will hinge on the development of new technologies and ingredients. In particular, he would like to see a research breakthrough on the biological receptor for salty tastes.

“This is needed so that true alternatives to the unique flavour of sodium can be developed in the same way that sweeteners mimic a sugary taste,” he says. “Sweet receptors are generally well understood, which helped to lead the discovery of new natural sweeteners and enhancers which aid in the manufacture of reduced-sugar products.”

In the meantime, it is clear that sodium reduction is easier for some food and beverage categories than for others. It is particularly tricky for foods like cheese (in which salt has an impact on textural and cooking properties), meat products (where salt helps control microbial growth), and products where salt contributes heavily to the taste.

However, WASH takes the view that if some companies within a category are capable of meeting the targets, there is no reason that the rest can’t follow suit.

A 2012 CASH report, ‘Technical solutions to salt reduction across 8 categories of food’, contains many examples. For instance, the bacon supplier VION had developed a low-salt product using umami flavouring technology, giving the lie to the idea that it can’t be done. KP Hula Hoops had begun to use potassium salts, and a number of cake manufacturers were using potassium-based raising agents. Meanwhile, stir-fry sauces showed a wide variability in their salt levels, with some containing ‘trace’ levels and others saltier than seawater.

As Brown sees it, the same principle applies in cases where a product is sold across multiple markets.

“We consistently find in our product surveys that the same product will vary widely in salt content depending on the country it is sold in,” she says. “For example, in 2016 we found that Kellogg’s Cornflakes sold in India was the saltiest, with 1.93g of salt per 100g. They have 46% more salt than the least salty Cornflakes, available in Argentina with 1.04g of salt per 100g. Our message is that if a lower salt recipe is available and it is popular, this should be the standard recipe deployed by the company across all of its markets. This is easier for the company as they only have one recipe to follow, and it will be healthier for consumers too.”

WASH’s product surveys, which it conducts at least once a year, function as a way to open a dialogue with industry and indirectly put pressure on food companies. The group highlights low salt products that meet current salt reduction targets, as well as ‘naming and shaming’ those that aren’t doing so well.

However, WASH doesn’t place the blame solely in the hands of manufacturers. As Brown explains, without government-mandated targets or a properly monitored voluntary programme, there isn’t a level playing field across countries. Likewise, some companies may put a lot of effort into reformulation work, while others might not make it a focus.

Wherever possible, WASH sets up meetings with companies to discuss their challenges and offer solutions.

“Resources must be put into reformulation, and innovation may be required to meet some of the more stringent targets,” she says. “This can be a challenge for smaller companies. In addition, it is often argued that products are adapted to the taste of local consumers, hence the difference in salt levels for the same product. This again highlights the importance of setting a coherent salt reduction strategy in every country – if everyone’s taste preferences for salt gradually decrease in tandem, then the argument becomes obsolete.”

When asked which food companies are performing particularly well, Brown says it’s hard to give examples – the group doesn’t have nutrition data for products sold outside the UK, and so can’t track progress over time. While several of the major players have implemented very public sodium reduction strategies, they tend to keep a lot of the salient information under wraps.

“International companies such as Mars and Mondelez International have committed to salt reductions across their portfolios, by 20% and 10% respectively, which is on top of reductions they have been making since the early 2000s, but they do not state the products involved,” she says. “Companies such as Unilever have stated that they will reformulate products to enable a salt intake of 5g a day, which again does not give detail of where reductions are being made, or if these reductions cover all markets.”

What can be said for sure is that progress is being made. While WHO’s 2025 target is still a way away, governments are already piling on the pressure. From the point of view of food manufacturers, that means acting sooner rather than later.

“We have never had a conversation with a company where they disputed the scientific evidence regarding salt and high blood pressure and, in general, companies are aware that they should be reducing salt in their foods,” says Brown. “However, progress will only continue if the pressure is applied, both by government, NGOs like ourselves, and consumer demand.”

This article appears in the 2017 vol 2 edition of Ingredients Insight

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