Food industry baffled by NICE salt guidance

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Trans fats, Salt reductions, Trans fat

Food industry baffled by NICE salt guidance
An assertion in new guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) that firms making progressive reductions in salt can simply carry on indefinitely without any technical or commercial consequences has baffled industry experts.

In guidance published this morning urging the trade to eliminate ‘artificial’ trans fats, charge less for healthier foods and speed up salt and saturated fat reduction measures, guidance group vice chair professor Simon Capewell said: “If salt levels in food are reduced by 5-10% a year, most consumers don’t even notice any difference in taste, their taste buds simply adjust.”

While this was true up to a point, manufacturers contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk said they had quickly learned that they would eventually reach a cut-off point after which consumers did notice a real difference.

More importantly, Capewell had also failed to recognise that salt performed a technical function in foods, which meant that manufacturers faced structural and microbiological challenges once salt levels went below a certain point, they added.

Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director of food safety and science Barbara Gallani said: “Technical challenges are not just presented by consumer acceptance of taste. There are more substantial functions that salt provides in food manufacturing, for example, providing food structure and texture. As the FSA's consultation has shown, there were some quick wins at the very beginning of the process, but continuing salt reductions have become more challenging, meaning an inevitable slowing in pace."

"Microbiological safety of food can also be compromised if recipes are changed in a way that increases the water activity of foods. Industry is investing a lot of resources into developing products with lower salt contents and will continue to do so, but this must be done in such a way as to ensure that the safety and quality of the products on offer is not compromised."

Separately, calls in the NICE guidance for the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) front-of-pack traffic light labelling system to be established “as the national standard”​ in the UK, backed by “legislation to ensure its universal implementation​” also raised eyebrows in the trade given that MEPS have only just voted to block the use of traffic light labels across Europe via the Food Information Regulation.

Finally, its invitation for the UK government to “consider supportive legislation if necessary”​ to force manufacturers to make further reductions in saturated fats also fails to take into account that such food legislation is increasingly decided at EU level, one industry source told FoodManufacture.co.uk.

FDF: NICE is out of touch with reality

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said it was surprised by NICE’s intervention given that the food industry has spent years working with the FSA to reduce salt, fat and sugar from processed foods.

Director of food and consumer policy Andrew Opie told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “This isn’t a problem we recognise. Retailers have been at the forefront of re-formulation for years, working with government to improve the composition of food without compromising quality.”

He also questioned the suggestion (above) that firms could simply carry on reducing salt indefinitely: "As we have already achieved major salt reductions over a number of years, further reductions are more difficult without compromising taste and durability of products."

Food and Drink Federation communications director Julian Hunt added: “We are surprised that NICE has found the time and the money to develop guidance that seems to be out of touch with the reality of what has been happening for many years.”

He also took issue with the references to trans fats given that the levels consumed in the UK were now negligible. “Industry reformulation efforts have already resulted in the levels of trans fats in foods dropping to well below the suggested maximum daily intake recommended by the World Health Organisation.”

Th Dairy Council also expressed surprise at NICE's intervention: "We are surprised that NICE has chosen to release recommendations in areas where government agencies already have initiatives under way.”

Greencore said many manufacturers had already reduced or removed hydrogenated vegetable oils from products: "Our policy is to have no artificial trans fats or hydrogenated vegetable oils added to our products and these have been removed from all of our product categories."

Diet, heart disease and stroke

However, NICE public health director professor Mike Kelly said following the guidance would save lives: “This guidance aims to save lives and reduce the terrible toll of ill health caused by heart disease and stroke.”

Lobby Group CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) also welcomed the guidance, said chairman Graham Macgregor: “For every 1g reduction in salt intake, more than 12,000 strokes and heart attack events will be prevented. This is of even greater importance given the cost savings that must be made by the present government. ”

Related topics: NPD

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