Pushing the boundaries: Can we take salt reduction to the next level?

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Pushing the boundaries: Can we take salt reduction to the next level?

Related tags Salt reduction Food

Is industry at the limit of what it can realistically achieve in lowering salt levels, or will a new wave of scientific developments and innovative technologies help to push the boundaries on how much salt we can take out of products?

Actions by industry to reduce the salt content of food in recent years can be seen as a huge success, and will continue to be a success as manufacturers and ingredient suppliers work together to continue to battle to reduce levels of sodium in food products.

However, there is a considerable distance to go before the long term targets set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are met. In this special edition article we look at why salt reduction is becoming more difficult for the industry, and examine some of the areas where there is still work to be done.

The balancing act

In most developed countries, 80% of consumed salt comes from industry-prepared food: "Thus, if we want a reduction of salt consumption at the population level, we need the collaboration of the food processing industry,"​ noted François Delahaye from the Université Claude-Bernard Lyon, France, in a recent study​.

Salt, he said, is 'a precious ally' for the food industry: "it is a flavour enhancer, able to season the most insipid dishes and liven up bland food; it is a good preservative; it favours some colourations, such as bread crust; it increases the weight of some foods (because of water retention); and it plays a role in the texture of some foods (e.g. ham without enough salt cannot be cut)."

Therefore, any reduction in the quantity of salt in foods has to be acceptable in terms of taste, technology and hygiene, said Delahaye.

An example of this is breadmaking, where according to new research​ lowering salt levels reduces the strength and stability of dough, and loaf volume of bread. Because of this, and several other technical challenges, the significant reduction of salt in many cereal-based foods, "without impacting on the product processability and eating characteristics that consumers associate with a particular type of baked product, remains a major challenge for the industry,"​ said the authors behind the study.

Reaching the limit?

Indeed a 2012 report by Leatherhead Food Research suggested that the levels of reduction possible utilising current techniques and technologies may be reaching its limit.

The report - found here​ - suggests that while potential future methods, almost all have yet to be tried in foods or still require considerably more scientific development, including establishing their safety for consumption.

Speaking at the time of publication, Barbara Gallani, food safety and science director at the UK Food and Drink Federation noted that the Leatherhead report "illustrates the complexity of salt reduction, and demonstrates the need for all parties to work together if continued progress is to be made to drive down salt consumption."

"Salt reduction is very complex,"​ echoed Professor Paul Berryman of Leatherhead. "Each product category presents different challenges because salt affects taste, texture, shelf life and food safety.​ 
"Our research identified some exciting new techniques using mineral salts, potassium replacers, taste enhancers and clever manipulation of salt crystal size and position. These will assist food companies new to salt reduction."

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