Salt reduction strategies

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0301077Among the factors causing high hypertension rates and other cardiovascular diseases typical of developed Countries, excessive amounts of sodium in the diet is considered one of the most important.

Table salt (sodium chloride) represents the main source of sodium in our diet: 1 g of salt corresponds to 0.4 g of sodium. In Italy alone, the average daily consumption of salt is around 10-15 grams per capita, which is 2-3 folds higher than the amount recommended by WHO (World Health Organization). It is estimated that salt added during home cooking only represents a minor part of the total daily amount ingested: the main source is probably the high amount of salt present in industrial food, therefore the finger is pointed towards food industry. According to the English SCAN (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition), the portion of salt coming from industrial food could be up to 75% of the total daily amount. In fact, high amounts of salt are present not only in cured meats, cheeses, sauces, ready meals, snacks, canned foods, etc., but also in bakery (not only bread and savoury products but even sweet ones as biscuits and cakes) and breakfast cereals, since salt helps to enhance flavour and taste of these products. According to SCAN, bakery products are in fact the main source of salt (ca. 30%), because they represent for many people the base of diet and are therefore consumed in big portions. In recent years, many initiatives are coming out in order to make consumers aware of the problem and encourage food companies to reduce salt in their recipes. In Italy, Health Ministry started a few years ago an initiative aimed at obtaining a gradual reduction of sodium chloride used in bread making. Participating companies are allowed to put a special logo (a smiling hearth) on their products. Similar initiatives have been taken by other Countries, by European Union and by WHO, with increasing pressure on the food industry. In fact, producers able to print on their packaging such an health claim, will gain a market advantage. European Regulation 1924/2006 on health claims specifies the following regarding low levels of salt:
–    LOW SODIUM/SALT: this claim can only be made where the product contains no more than 0,12 g of sodium, or the equivalent value for salt, per 100 g or per 100 ml.
–    VERY LOW SODIUM/SALT: this claim can only be made where the product contains no more than 0,04 g of sodium, or the equivalent value for salt, per 100 g or per 100 ml.
–    SODIUM-FREE or SALT-FREE: a claim that a food is sodium-free or salt-free, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product contains no more than 0,005 g of sodium, or the equivalent value for salt, per 100 g.
Regarding the choice to use the term “salt” or “sodium”, the recent European Regulation 1169/2011 on food products labeling specifies that the term “salt” is always better compared to “sodium”, being the latter less familiar for most consumers. The following two diagrams (1) show how is the market moving in respect of healthy low salt foods: the top graph shows new market launches divided by food sector (silent reformulations are not included), and the bottom one shows in which Countries those launches have been made. It can be concluded that at the moment bakery and baby food are the sectors most sensitive to the problem, due probably to customers awareness. In Italy the trend towards low salt products is not very strong as yet, but in other Countries, like UK, some organizations as BRC (British Retail Consortium) have joined forces to offer scientific bases to food industries in order to support them during low salt products reformulations (2).

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Figure 1. New low salt products introductions by food sector (top) and Country (bottom)

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Possible approaches to reduce salt in food products
To reformulate a product recipe in order to obtain a significant salt reduction is not an easy task. Salt reduction has not only an impact on taste an flavour, but also on shelf life (salt helps fight microbial spoilage) and sometimes on texture. In fact, salt gives taste and richness to food, and enhances sweet taste: this is why it is added also to sweet products. Salt also have the osmotic power to hold water, therefore a salt reduction can alter hydration of food matrix and changes in texture. Furthermore, in bread and baked products salt has specific effects: it interacts with the gluten net giving better dough, firmer and with lesser stickiness, and crust in finished products has a stronger colour. Also in meat based products salt has important effects: it interacts with muscular proteins increasing WHC (water holding capacity), and in emulsioned products has texturizing and binding capacity helping stabile mixtures with lipids. But the most important “side effect” of salt is probably its power to prevent spoilage and therefore to prolong food conservation: salt lowers aw (water activity), reducing the amount of water available for microbial growth. Reducing salt amount can therefore be dangerous from the conservability point of view, shrinking shelf life length; this could mean the need for preservatives addition, more severe heath treatments, or changes in packaging, all meaning increased costs. Among the available strategies to reduce salt in food, here are some of the most successful.
ADAPTATION. In order to avoid consumers perception of taste changes, it is possible to gradually and slightly diminish salt quantity in the recipe, in small steps over a reasonably long length of time. A reduction up to 15% is usually achievable.