The great salt debate - not just black and white

By Chris Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Salt Flavor Food

The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to remove
salt from the list of foods it categorizes as "generally recognized
as safe" (GRAS), but taking salt out of food is not as easy as it
might seem, ingredients firm DSM told

The FDA has launched a public consultation on whether to remove salt's GRAS status following repeated petitions from interest groups highlighting the alleged danger of salt consumption. The results of that consultation - and the FDA's final decision - will not be known until later this year, but this has not stopped the issue from hitting the headlines. A recent article in USA Today highlighted the massive increase in salt intake among Americans as a result, mainly, of excessive consumption of process foods, in which salt is widely used as a flavor enhancer, a texturizer and a preservative. "If salt were taken off the GRAS list, manufacturers could be subject to limitations on the quantity used in the production of food,"​ the paper noted, adding that the FDA held a hearing on the issue last November. In a response to the USA Today article, DSM Food Specialities, a Dutch company, issued a statement underlining the complexity of the salt issue - and some of the solutions it could bring. "Ingredient suppliers must develop new technologies that help food manufacturers find innovative solutions to the challenge of reducing the sodium content of processed foods,"​ said Peter Kempe, president of DSM Food Specialties USA, the American subsidiary of the Dutch group, in a statement issued last week. "We know the food industry takes this issue very seriously and we partner regularly with major food manufacturers to help them achieve their internal sodium reduction targets." ​ But Hanneke Veldhuis, business manager at DSM Food Specialities in the Netherlands, told this website that finding alternatives to salt was far more complicated than it might at first seem. "Salt has many functions in food, not just adding to the taste, and it is hard to find one single product that reproduces all the functionalities in the same way,"​ she said. "We have a yeast extract product that is popular as a salt replacer in many products, but the taste is not always 100 per cent the same." ​ She stressed that salt could not be taken out of every product in the same way without having major effects on taste and texture. "You cannot, for example, cut salt levels in bread than by more than around 50 per cent without having an impact on the baking process." ​ Veldhuis stressed that while a company such as DSM, which has a long history of experience in fermentation, yeasts and extracts, was able to create alternatives to salt, it did not feel it had a role to play in the salt debate. "That will be up to the US regulators to decide,"​ she stressed. "What is certainly true is that replacing salt in many foodstuffs will be a hell of a challenge for food companies, and it will cost them a lot." ​ Ultimately, this cost issue may well sway the FDA, especially in the light of the raft of contradictory science on the pros and cons of salt in foods, and since many food companies are already taking voluntary action to cut salt levels. "We are working with many companies the world over on salt replacement ingredients,"​ said Veldhuis. "There is a feeling that gradually reducing salt levels in many products, ahead of any statutory requirement to do so, no matter how far away that might be, is the best way to win consumer acceptance." ​ DSM has two main yeast extract products that it markets as salt replacers: the new Maxarite brand, which is used mainly in cheeses, breads and tortillas, and the more established Maxarome, which is widely used in soups, sauces and meat products. But neither of these can do everything that salt does. "When it comes to preserving food, especially meats, yeast extracts can only be part of the solution to replacing salt,"​ said Veldhuis, who stressed that there were other ingredients that offered salt replacement. "We are certainly seeing huge interest in our products from the food industry, in the US, Europe and especially Asia, where the high levels of salt in the diet mean that people are at higher risk,"​ she said. "This is a market that will continue to grow, whatever the legislators decide." ​ The FDA is not expected to remove salt's GRAS status at the present time, but with pressure from health advocates and consumer groups to at least tackle the salt-related health issues, the likelihood of some form of restriction on salt use, in the long term, must remain high.

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