Working in tandem with governments, industry and healthcare professionals continue to increase awareness about the implications of excessive salt consumption. At the same time, consumers demand clean-label products, reducing the number of tools available for food producers to supply low-sodium food alternatives. In general, consumers are choosing healthier options, but they may not be including low sodium in their definition of “healthy.” Sugar has long been seen as the “bad guy,” but is industry doing enough to combat the negative effects of sodium?
Sodium reduction is undoubtedly in the spotlight. Last month, a Lancet study highlighted the need for reformulation after one in five deaths were linked to poor diet. This resulted in calls on governments to focus on increasing the consumption of healthy foods and on the industry to drive innovation by producing affordable and nutritious food, as well as formulating lower sodium alternatives.
“High blood pressure is known as the silent killer as it symptomless and the link between sodium and blood pressure may not always be well known,” Mhairi Brown, Nutritionist at Action on Salt, a London-based non-profit organization, tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “Sugar is a concern for many consumers and with policy drives, including sugar levies on sugar-sweetened soft drinks, coupled with social media and media content highlighting the need for less sugar in the diet, it can be hard to keep salt on the health agenda.”
In the UK, the Secretary of State for Health was due to release salt reduction plans by Easter 2019, as part of the government’s Green Paper on prevention. Unfortunately, these have been delayed, in all likelihood by the political uncertainty caused by Brexit, but also potentially due to resistance from the food industry, Brown notes. “However, once released, these plans should kick start the UK’s salt reduction plan and help increase consumer awareness of salt levels in the foods they buy for themselves and their families,” she says.
There are a few select food categories that present challenges in terms of salt reduction, according to Brown, the main ones being meat applications, as the salt in processed meat can help prevent bacteria growth. “However, the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Committee on Toxicity recommended in 2017 that the government should consider advising the food industry to use potassium salt (potassium chloride) to help lower sodium levels in food,” Brown explains.
Potassium salt has all the food safety properties of regular salt and while we would ideally like to see all products slowly reducing their salty taste – helping our taste buds to adapt to less salt overall – the approved use of potassium salt means there is no excuse for not engaging in salt reduction, even in the more challenging categories. “Furthermore, although progress towards the 2017 targets was poor, some companies did easily achieve the targets, highlighting that ‘barriers’ to salt reduction are frequently just an excuse,” she says.
More often than not, salt is also added to products to extend their shelf life. However, Action on Salt’s surveys of salt levels in food categories over the past decade shows that this is “unnecessary.”
“We consistently find a huge variation in the levels of salt in similar products – for example, in 2017, we found a three-fold difference in the salt content of the saltiest and least salty sausages sold in UK supermarkets, and a four-fold difference between pesto sauces,” Brown reveals. This demonstrates that it is possible to make a product with less salt and if one company can do this, then all companies should follow this example, she stresses.
For Jan Klerken, CEO of Scelta Mushrooms, sodium reduction is not as trivial as a one to one replacement, especially in applications where sodium chloride provides more functionality than just taste, for instance, yeast control or dough rheology. “Accordingly, we have developed a solution tailored to the bakery industry, but we continue to explore opportunities where our tools can reduce salt on all technical aspects.”
Scelta currently has two lines of natural sodium reduction tools, tailored to different needs and different window of applications. “Our Taste Accelerator line principally has the most cross-category potential because of its a more neutral taste,” explains Klerken. “That is, it could technically be applied anywhere where one might want to reduce sodium and keep a clean label.”
Food producers are interested in creating higher-priced, ready-to-eat variants of existing products lines, with strong emphases on healthiness and Klerken “absolutely expects sodium reduction to remain a keystone in public health improvement.”
Klerken also notes that the demand for reduced sodium solutions goes hand-in-hand with the demand for clean label ingredients. “We are only at the surface of what is possible with mushrooms, but the market for clean-label sodium reduction tools is still in its infancy. We continuously seek methods to improve our output in the sodium reduction space without compromising quality,” he says.
Sugar vs. salt
Too much salt has long been identified as the main culprit for several cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). “However, public attention on the unhealthiness of sugar, salt, fat or artificial additives tends to be periodical, in that one particular ingredient is scrutinized as ‘the bad ingredient’ before the next,” continues Klerken. Sugar, of course, is often associated with diabetes and obesity, has never entirely left the public eye and, as such, is much more advanced in terms of technological solutions tailored to its replacement, he says.
“The food industry may raise objections to reducing salt in their products, but the overwhelming evidence of the effect of salt on health is not going anywhere,” Brown adds.
Salt reduction is a shared responsibility and individuals, health charities, governments and, crucially, the food industry must take action to help prevent the easily avoidable deaths and disability caused by high salt diets, she explains.
“If there is no demand for reduced salt products, many food companies will not take the responsibility to offer reduced-sodium products. The government must do more to raise public awareness of the dangers that salt poses to health to kick start that demand. Also, companies can reduce the salt content of many products by up to 20 percent without consumers noticing,” Brown notes.
This should not detract from the impact salt has on our health; however, as it is justifiably the “bad guy.” High salt diets raise blood pressure and this, in turn, increases the risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke – the main causes of death and disability in the UK and worldwide. “It’s not just our blood pressure that is at risk either: evidence also shows that kidney disease, kidney stones, stomach cancer and osteoporosis are all linked to a high salt diet,” she adds.
Brown believes the food industry must reduce levels of salt and sugar in food, as well as calories, in their products and more can be done to create environments that enable healthier choices – reduced advertising and marketing of unhealthy food, cheaper healthy food and better nutrition labeling on food and drink consumed of the home. “The UK government is currently consulting on these measures and if they are successfully implemented – in conjunction with strong salt, sugar and calorie reduction programs – we have a real opportunity to create healthier futures for the next generation,” she explains.
According to Hanane Lamjaj, Biospringer Global Marketing Director, using natural ingredients such as nutritional yeast can help improve taste, while also tapping into consumer willingness to experiment with more novel and unique flavor combinations.
“Our yeast ingredient goes in the direction of customers who do not want to compromise taste and favor naturalness,” Lamjaj explains.
Salt, when consumed in large quantities, may adversely affect the health of consumers, says Laurence Vercoutère, Communication Project Manager at Biospringer.
However, for sugar reduction and/or removal, there are a lot of sugar substitutes on the market, each with advantages and disadvantages. “And consumers are now used to a specific level of sweetness with sugar or substitutes which bring reassuring and delicious notes,” Vercoutère notes.
However, this is not so much the case for sodium solutions.
“Salt reduction is a key topic for us, and we are working on different fermentation based solution to reduce salt without compromising and taste,” adds Lamjaj.
According to Vercoutère, most people consume too much salt; on average 9-12 grams per day, or around twice the recommended maximum level of intake. WHO Member States have agreed to reduce the global population’s intake of salt by a relative 30 percent by 2025 to achieve 5 grams per person per day, which will likely help to reduce blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and coronary heart attack. Applications which have the most potential for reformulation of low/no salt are prepared meals, snacks, sauces and bakery products.
By Elizabeth Green
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