Leatherhead Food Research (LFR) put the study, Evaluation of Technological Approaches to Salt Reduction, together, supported by BRC and FDF funding.
Consumer group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) attacked the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) for their “dinosaur-like” approach to salt reduction. It rejected their claims that salt reduction in foods was reaching its limit, saying the new report offered many solutions.
Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, BRC deputy food director, told FoodNavigator CASH ignored the fact that salt reduction varied in difficulty depending on the food category. For some categories there were virtually no current solutions. “One of the ones we continue to struggle with is meat,” she said.
“In ham [for example], salt performs a preservative quality. We really have not found an alternative that is as effective that provides a clean label [natural solution] and doesn’t affect flavour or shelf life.”
Salt also aids the manufacturing process in foods such as cheese and extruded snacks, presenting further complications, claims the FDF.
In addition, many solutions are years away from being commercialised and needed to go through a strenuous process of safety assessment, said Martinez-Inchausti. “When we went to companies to ask what assessment they had done to provide safety data, some did have the data and some claimed not to have it at all.”
Martinez-Inchausti said one popular salt reduction solution was to use potassium salts as substitutes, but the Department of Health (DoH) had advised against this because it could prove harmful. “A lot of companies are using potassium salts as an alternative, but we have received advice from the DoH not to use these as they are pretty lethal [in sufficient quantities] for people with renal failure and the elderly.”
Barbara Gallani, FDF food safety and science director, said: “One of our recommendations is for the DoH to revise its advice on potassium salts. There might be solutions that use potassium compounds that are perfectly feasible, because they are not going to be used in large amounts.”
She said solutions involving restructuring of salt crystals, possibly through nanotechnology, might have to go through Novel Foods approval at EU level. “If it needs to go through European approval, it’s not going to be in a product for years.”
Current DoH salt reduction targets run out at the end of the year. Martinez-Inchausti said CASH was pressing for 2014 targets, but added: “We are saying, ‘hang on a minute, we’re still struggling with 2012’”.
The LFR report claims food manufacturers were struggling to meet targets in eight product areas. Aside from meat and meat products, cheese and extruded and pelleted snacks, the others were: bread; cakes, pastry and fruit pies; pesto and thick sauces; 'other' puddings and canned fish.
In view of the hurdles, Martinez-Inchausti said future reduction work was going to have to be done on a product-by-product basis.
In addition, some food firms were not pursuing the salt targets, which have been incorporated into the joint industry and government Responsibility Deal on Health, said Martinez-Inchausti. This meant consumers could still end up over-consuming salt. Some companies were using monosodium glutamate (MSG) to replace the flavour of lost salt, which some believed caused negative health effects.
Dr Paul Berryman, LFR chief executive, said aside from recommendations to the DoH on potassium, another proposal in the report was: "Government and industry should agree on proper protocol to check on safety." The study also recommends that all stakeholders should work together on raising awareness of the steps needed to commercialise solutions.
Gallani said the LFR report was "unique", in that it provided a single, comprehensive source of current thinking on processing and ingredient solutions for salt reduction in the UK.