Against the grain

By Susan Birks

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Salt

Overuse of that most common of seasoning agent, salt, has led to government action forcing industry to slash levels in food. Susan Birks reports on alternative seasonings

Salt has always courted controversy and dispute. According to historians the first wars that mankind initiated were most probably over salt supplies. Prized by ancient civilisations for its preservative properties, salt enabled foods such as meat and fish to be stored for long periods. In ancient Greece, slaves were traded for salt -- hence the expression 'not worth his salt'; Roman soldiers were often paid in salt and it was still used as currency in countries as far apart as Ethiopia, Tibet and Borneo until relatively recently.

Today, salt is used by food manufacturers because it is a very cheap, multi-functional ingredient. Used in all kinds of products it can act as a seasoning, binder, stabiliser, texture and bulking agent, preservative or fermentation controller to name but a few functions.

In fact, there are few processed foods that do not use salt in some form. And therein lies the rub. While estimates can vary, some medical experts say the average British adult eats approximately 12g of salt a day, and as much as 70% of that comes from processed foods.

The medical profession is now convinced that excess salt intake can lead to high blood pressure -- one of the main causes of heart attacks and strokes -- and that a 10% cut of 1g/day could mean saving 5,800 lives in the UK in just one year.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommends adults reduce their intake to 6g per day, hence the strenuous calls by the health minister Melanie Johnson for industry to submit plans for a 30% reduction in the use of salt -- or, technically speaking, sodium chloride.

The fact that sodium levels, and not salt levels, have to be declared on labels confounds much of the good work manufacturers are doing, believes Gill Fine, head of food and health at Sainsbury.

Speaking at a recent Westminster Diet and Health Forum on salt she said that current European Union labelling laws require salt to be labelled as sodium. But many consumers do not make the connection between sodium and salt, says Fine, and so some supermarkets are defying the law in labelling products with salt content. The Food Standards Agency (FSA), however, is lobbying the European Commission for changes to nutritional content labelling.

But manufacturers' main concern was strongly voiced by Fiona Angus of Leatherhead Food International's (LFI) nutrition department: "How do we get a 30% reduction in salt but maintain microbiological safety and consumer acceptability?" she asked. And more crucially for manufacturers producing low margin products, who will cover the extra costs?

Reductions are already being made. But last month an FSA survey found that levels in some like-for-like products still vary enormously. One children's pizza, for example, was found to contain almost three-times as much salt as a rival brand.

Work in progress

Some of the reductions have been achieved using salt alternatives or reducers. Lo Salt, produced by Klinge Foods and Solo produced by the Low Sodium Sea Salt Company are two examples. These have a lower sodium content but higher amounts of magnesium, potassium and other essential minerals. While not a direct replacement, they are being used by most multiples in their healthy eating ranges.

The Low Sodium Sea Salt Company says there are huge health benefits to be had from incorporating such mineral-rich material in products. For example, nutritionist Patrick Holden says adding calcium, magnesium or potassium singly to the diet will lower blood pressure, but used in combination, coupled with a decrease in sodium, they can dramatically reduce blood pressure levels within days.

Another replacement option is potassium chloride, but its bitter taste makes products unpalatable if used in like-for-like quantities.

The meat sector faces the dilemma that salt is not only used for its flavour but also to prevent microbial growth and spoilage. It is also used for solubilising proteins in meat tissues, which then help to hold the muscles together, giving structure and texture to comminuted meat products such as sliced or shaved meats.

meat solution

Dera Food Technology has worked with manufacturers on replacing the lost flavour properties of salt using its Derarom flavours and says it is also possible to supplement solubilised proteins with other gelling components now permitted under new meat legislation, without the need to alter product names. It also has anti-spoilage ingredients that help to maintain shelf-life.

Ulrick & Short believes its wheat protein -- called Complex -- can provide meat processors with reduced salt content products without affecting the flavour profile. The wheat protein range comprises binders and emulsifiers for burgers and sausages, which -- in contrast to their soya counterparts -- impart little or no unwanted flavour to the meat, resulting in meatier, saltier flavoured products.

LFI has a research project under way looking at salt in soups and sauces. Due to be completed in November 2004, preliminary results suggest that amino acids may offer the potential to boost saltiness, says Angus.

Other research areas being looked at by LFI are ways of optimising the bio-availability and 'saltiness' of salt. Sensory analysis of salt with different particle sizes and the reduction of sodium through partial replacement with potassium chloride are also being carried out.

Where salt is present mainly for flavour enhancement, other seasonings could be a reducer option. S Black, for example, suggests using the hot pepper sauce Tabasco to spice up soups, sauces, salad dressings, pastas and recipe dishes. With only 30mg of sodium per teaspoon it is low in sodium, high in flavour.

Sue Williams, head of seasonings R&D for Griffith Laboratories, suggests using ingredients with a high content of naturally-occurring monosodium glutamate, such as yeast extracts. These combined with herbs and spices, natural extracts and sometimes potassium chloride could deliver a 'cleaner' flavour but with reduced salt, she says.

Herbs can help

British Pepper & Spice (BPS) is working with its customers to use herbs and spices to create exciting flavour profiles without added salt. "Rather than simply trying to replace salt in existing blends, BPS will also work with its customers on completely new blends that do not rely on salt for their flavour," says marketing and sales director Ian Kelland. "We use complex flavour profiles including flavours such as chilli, smoked paprika and pepper to ensure that consumers do not miss the taste of salt."

At East Anglian Food Ingredients (EAFI), md Steve Clemenson says increased use of strong herb notes such as garlic, oregano and basil can help mask the salt reduction in low sodium seasonings and further balance can be achieved using yeast flavours. But, as salt is a cheap flavour enhancer and bulking agent he points out that most solutions have a cost implication. Herbs are not as cheap as salt.

That cost is very product dependent. In some cases it may only be 1-2% but in other retail products such as long shelf-life sauces and curry pastes salt levels can be higher. EAFI, however, manages considerable reductions with careful use of yeast, sugar, citric acid and vinegar.

Carbery ingredients group has developed a range of salt reducers designed to deliver a rich savoury taste and clean label declaration. However, it stresses that each manufacturer's situation needs careful analysis. It believes that, once achieved, it is important to communicate the improvement to the consumer on the front of packs. Labels should indicate how the food is lower in salt but still has the same great taste, giving the consumer confidence to buy, it says.

For most producers, it is easier to create new low salt products than to change existing products whose popularity and functionality rely on salt. For this reason many in the industry, including Sainsbury's Fine, feel "the government's timetables are an issue"

The lack of a consistent approach between the FSA and Department of Health also rankles. But for most companies overuse of salt now goes against the grain. FM

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