Sugar reformulation: can the industry learn from salt?

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

The right medicine: the debate between taxation and reformulation continues
The right medicine: the debate between taxation and reformulation continues

Related tags Sodium

Alongside the now-familiar call for a 20% tax on sugary soft drinks, the recent House of Commons Health Select Committee report on child obesity proposed other measures, including centrally-led reformulation in high-sugar food and drink.

Key points

The report, at the tail-end of November, came on top of last summer’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) report on Carbohydrates and Health, followed by Jamie Oliver’s crusade in favour of a sugary drinks tax. The October 2015 Public Health England (PHE) report on sugar reduction pulled no punches, either.

Around the same time, it was reported that three major retail chains had called for government-led targets in sugar reduction.

Amid the growing clamour over sugar, two clear camps have emerged – those who favour taxation, and those who would prefer to see reduction targets. And while the likes of Jamie Oliver have been increasingly vocal in recent months, those who favour the latter approach might be wise to point out the apparent success reduction targets have had on another key food-making ingredient salt.

So, could sugar reduction be handled the same way? Or are the challenges more complex?

At the British Retail Consortium, director for food and sustainability Andrew Opie backs the Health Select Committee’s call for a greater focus on sugar. “We support mandatory sugar targets, and we were a little surprised the Committee had suggested it was worth, initially at least, pursuing them through a voluntary mechanism,”​ he says. “We don’t believe that will work.”

Voluntary success (return to top)

As expected, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) favours neither voluntary nor mandatory targets on sugar reduction. “Everyone agrees that the gradual voluntary reformulation of products to reduce salt content over several years has been a huge success,”​ says corporate affairs director Tim Rycroft.

“Good progress on calorie-reduction ​[including calories from sugars] is continuing. But the challenges, both technical and in terms of consumer acceptance, are much greater.”

Not all agree, however, that the challenges thrown down by sugar reduction are greater than with salt.

PHE’s ‘evidence for action’ report drew an explicit parallel between successful salt reduction targets and proposed reductions in sugar.

At Leatherhead Food Research, principal technical advisor Kate Mulconroy points out that both sugar and salt are multifunctional ingredients. “Reduction and removal is not a straightforward process, as other sensory attributes beyond taste such as texture and mouthfeel can potentially be compromised,”​ she says. “There is no one perfect substitute ingredient that works across all product applications.”

According to Mulconroy, this adds time and cost to the reformulation process, since every different product or product variant may require a different solution. But again, this is as true for salt as it is for sugar,

In fact, in at least one respect, the barriers to salt replacement (and even straight reduction) are rather higher.

“The one major difference with salt it’s a very cheap food,”​ says Caroline Klinge, sales and marketing manager at Klinge Foods, owner of LoSalt, a potassium chloride-based brand.

“When you use a salt-replacer such as ours, retailers will tend to say, ‘we like your food, but make it cheaper’.”

Nor has the UK’s salt reduction path been a smooth downward curve. After the 2003 SACN report on salt and the setting of Food Standards Agency (FSA) targets, average intake fell by 1g per day, or over 10%, in the four years to 2008.

In the four years that followed, Klinge says the reduction was only 0.5g and still a long way from the 6g intake recommended by SACN.

Currently, just 39 businesses are signed up to the 2017 salt reduction targets set under the Department of Health (DH) Responsibility Deal. This compares with 79 signatories in 2012.

“Why only 39? Because too many companies think they cannot hit those targets without using an alternative to salt,”​ says Klinge.

Up until recently, she says, the DH wanted to see a shift in consumer flavour preferences away from salty flavours altogether. But the perception across many food categories is that reduction (rather than replacement) has been taken as far as it can.

Potential progress is being slowed, Klinge argues, by SACN’s delay in publishing a new report on potassium-based salt replacers. A ‘green light’ for these alternatives could, according to this theory, break the log-jam.

“The ball is very much in the government’s court,”​ she says. “But I see the 2017 targets being extended still further.”

In some categories, of course, sodium content can be cut without reducing salt. At magnesium-based salt-replacement company Innophos, vice president for strategy and worldwide business development Mark Thurston says: “In sweet baked goods, up to 75% of the sodium content comes from the baking powder, while sodium benzoate is one of the common preservatives.”

Salt alternatives (return to top)

In other product areas, there is little option but to replace sodium chloride. “Cheese has a big problem, with a 1.5% or even 2.5% salt content,”​ says Thurston. “Using our magnesium chloride-based alternative, sodium chloride can be taken down to 0.75%. It’s used in some US cheeses.”

But, he adds, it costs up to eight times as much as sodium chloride.

Not every salt-replacement strategy has to be this costly. Eat Balanced is a Glasgow-based pizza maker that uses seaweed in the pizza base.

“It’s taken us three years to get the cost and the recipe right,”​ says brand director Katie Sillars.

According to Sillars, there are other companies producing school-compliant pizzas in terms of overall nutrition, but their salt levels are “nowhere near”​ the same.

“Working with seaweed is complicated it’s a bit of an art form,”​ she explains. “At first, the seaweed we used was too granular, but we went down to more of a fine powder.”

With nutritional balance as its selling point, Eat Balanced adds roasted red pepper puree to the topping to boost vitamin C and also incorporates fibre into the base.

The md of Eat Balanced supplier Seaweed & Co Dr Craig Rose says that the Ascophyllum nodosum supplied by his company has been shown by Sheffield Hallam University to extend shelf-life in products such as bread, thanks to its anti-microbial and mould-suppressing qualities.

When it comes to flavour, seaweed uses its glutamate content to substitute salt. “It plays off the other flavours in the product,”​ says Rose. “But at 100% salt replacement in white bread, for example, you’ve got seaweed-flavoured bread.”

As a result, Seaweed & Co has been working with flavour houses to develop masking systems to reduce the “minerally, seaweedy notes”​. Trials have been run successfully, he says, with bread, chicken stock, and chicken pieces rolled in what looks like a herb-based coating.

But with sugar reduction leading public debate, and with salt and (saturated) fat content following along probably in that order, we are seeing more of a focus on the multiple roles of sugar and the complexities of replacing it.

‘Toolbox approach’ (return to top)

At Campden BRI, product development scientist Rachel Gwinn believes a “toolbox approach”​ is required when reducing sugar. EU regulation regarding the use of sweeteners, in particular, may add to the reformulation challenge.

“For example, high-potency sweeteners incorporated into products which fall under the category of ‘flavoured drinks’ may only be used when the product either has no added sugars or is ‘energy-reduced’ in other words, has an energy reduction of 30% or more,” ​she explains.

Sugar plays many roles in food, including taste, colour, mouthfeel, shelf-life, texture and bulk, Rycroft at the FDF concludes. “There is no single substitute that can play all these roles, making replacement of sugar a significant challenge.”

It is a challenge manufacturers are increasingly likely to have to face up to in the coming months.

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