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Salt reduction adds new challenges for water control

By Laura Crowley , 21-Aug-2008

The drive to reduce salt has introduced further obstacles for the baking industry to control water activity, which is a major contributor to a product’s characteristics.

Water poses a number of challenges for bakers, as it determines many qualities in the end product.

Biscuits are hard and crispy because of their lack of water, for example, while high water content in bread means it is soft. However, a change in water content will change the product’s consistency, making it stale.

“This multiplicity of roles means water presents many challenges to bakers,” Stanley Cauvain, director and vice president of research activities for BakeTran, told BakeryandSnacks.com.

“Salt is a powerful tool for food preservation as it locks up water making it unavailable for changes. It is11 times more powerful than sugar.”

However, with government and industry pressing for a reduction in salt, the industry is under pressure to reformulate and compensate for the loss of water control to cope with this already tricky factor.

Cauvain said: “This move towards so-called healthier products means the whole way we balance formulations to control water activity has to change.”

While salt replacers have been introduced to the market, these are considered less effective and also sometimes have side effects such as bitterness.

Numerous scientists are convinced high salt intake is responsible for increasing blood pressure (hypertension), a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which causes almost 50 per cent of deaths in Europe. This has led to a growing number of salt reduction initiatives across Europe.

The UK Food Standards Agency recommends a limit of 6g of salt per day for the general population, and less for children. Its targets for 2010 say products should have a 1 per cent salt content, but bread typically contains 1.2g per 100g.

The UK’s average daily salt consumption has now fallen from 9.5g to 8.6g since 2000, according to the FSA.

Shelf life

Changes over time to a baked product’s water content can completely transform a product. The changes occur both when water enters, or diffuses out of, the product, and when water moves between components, such as between cream and pastry.

“To control future water activity, you have to consider the start of the process,” said Cauvain. “If you have done your job properly at the beginning, then there is less of an issue as some of the water activity will be controlled.”

Cauvain explained that shelf life has become less of a priotrity for consumers over the past four or five years. However, changes in the economy as the rising cost of commodities may change consumer attitudes.

If this is the case, then people may start searching for products with a longer shelf life, placing pressure on bakers to have stronger control over water activity without including too much salt.

Environment issues

Cauvain said: “Baking is one of those strange food preparations processes where first of all you have to add water and then remove it again.”

This uses up a lot of energy and water, however, and a major challenge currently facing the industry is finding ways to adapt these processes.

Improvements could mean easier, more accessible baking for manufacturers in areas where water is scarce.

And a reduction in energy consumption would both be beneficial to the environment while saving costs, which is becoming more of a priority as raw material and energy costs continue to soar.

BakeTran has just released a new book called “Bakery Food Manufacture & Quality – Water Control and Effects”, which describes the role and control of water in their subsequent processing and in the final product.

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