The reduction of salt in packaged and processed foods has been a major target for food manufacturers, especially as the Food Standards Agency set salt reduction targets for various food categories by 2010.
Although there are considerable technical challenges to reducing salt content and still delivering products that are safe and acceptable to consumer tastes, the food industry has been eager to show it is on board with the movement.
The latest data from TNS indicate that there has been progress. The researchers looked at the nutrition labels of 100,000 food and drink products purchased by some 25,000 households.
They found that five categories had the greatest reduction in salt content over the two year period since a parallel study was done:
Bread products, including ‘morning goods’ like croissants, tea cakes, buns, waffles and others, were seen to contain 828 tonnes of salt less; in breakfast cereals the reduction was 490 tonnes; and in canned goods 573 tonnes.
Crisps showed 210 tonnes less salt. But it was in savoury home cooking products (including salt) that the greatest reduction, of 1693 tonnes, was seen.
Spending in the UK food retail sector increased by 11 per cent between September 2006 and September 2008, driven mostly by inflation, according to Cathy Capelin, strategic insight director at TNS Worldpanel. Volume growth was 1.8 per cent.
Against this context, Capelin said that the average household purchased 1.3 per cent less salt.
The findings have been welcomed by the Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers in the UK.
Director of communications Julian Hunt said: “This research gives us a snapshot of how salt levels are reducing, and builds on the reformulation work our members have been carrying out over many years.”
He also said consumer awareness of salt intake is increasing because of the use of front-of-pack labelling schemes. FDF favours the guidance daily amount scheme developed by the umbrella European trade association, the CIAA.
Recent data released by analyst Mintel appeared to contradict the notion of sweeping reductions in salt, fat and sugar content in foods. It reported this month that new products in its Global New Products Database making ‘minus claims’ (such as lower fat or calories) look to have stagnated. Around 18 per cent of new products made such claims – the same proportion as in 2007.
“In the past, low-fat and low-calorie were the hallmarks of good nutrition and dieting, but today that lifestyle seems passé,” said David Jago, an expert in new products at Mintel.
However Jago pointed out to FoodNavigator.com that in some cases companies are making healthier products but not shouting about them on the packaging.
This, he said, is “especially true of salt reduction, where there's often an ongoing and gradual process of reduction over time, and the reduction will only be communicated when it's reached a ‘meaningful’ level”.
He said that Mintel’s numbers are for new products and won't include all incremental reformulations, unless they are very prominent on-pack.