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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.

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.

Loss of market share

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.

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.

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.

Flashing light

Struggle to meet salt targets


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