Since the 1990s, food manufacturing has been significantly influenced by health and wellness.
Considering the range of new products entering the market today, there is no doubt that functional foods, those enhanced with ingredients or properties that provide health benefits to the consumer beyond basic nutrition, dominate supermarket shelves.
Whether claiming to reduce cholesterol, have lower sodium levels, be gluten free, sugar free, low GI, soy-based or fortified with vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, food innovation is being driven by a growing health trend.
But who or what is doing the driving?
It appears a combination of emerging processing technologies, scientific evidence of food’s link to improved health, food regulations, and consumer awareness of health are the main instigators.
Unilever’s corporate affairs director, Nick Goddard, attributes the growth in food products with improved health or functional benefits to food manufacturers picking up on consumers’ changing mindset.
“During the late 1990s consumers developed a mindset of taking a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing, including the food they eat and recognising that food has a much wider role to play than simply providing taste and satiety,” Goddard said.
“The onus then came back on food manufacturers that, having picked up on this trend through independent consumer research, embarked on a path of research and development to identify new opportunities to meet those needs.”
In line with demand for healthier foods consumed in and out of the home, food manufacturers have escalated the health trend by investing time and effort in researching and developing food ingredients, formulations and processing techniques.
Reducing sodium levels in processed foods is one area food manufacturers have focused on in new product development.
A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report that highlighted the negative affects of salt on people’s health and the launch of a national Drop the Salt campaign by the Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH) in May 2007 thrust the issue of salt into the spotlight, but Unilever says this issue is not new to the food industry.
In fact, Unilever points to the 1980s as the period when low-salt varieties in savoury food categories began to emerge and to 1988 in particular with the launch of the Heart Foundation’s Tick program, which included low sodium levels as one of its key requirements.
“The Heart Foundation Tick gives manufacturers a competitive advantage,” Goddard said.
“If you have the Tick on your product range and your competitor doesn’t, you have an advantage in the market place as consumers will tend to go for the healthier option.”
AWASH senior project managerJacqui Webster agrees, saying the food industry is one of the most innovative industries in the world and has not been slow to look at what benefits it can gain by focusing its innovation efforts on health.
“A lot of companies have already done quite a lot of work to reduce salt in their products and have said they’re committed to doing more,” she said.
“The potential for further reductions is made clear by the fact that if you look on the shelf, there is a huge variation in the salt content of similar product ranges, for example in different brands of tinned tomatoes,” Webster continued.
Salt in processed foods serves many purposes, but the three main reasons are for processing, taste and preservation.
Despite the necessity of salt in the production of many foods such as bread, meat and meat products, butter and margarine, Unilever recognises the key role of the food industry in reducing the salt intake of the Australian population which, according to the most recent national diet and physical activity survey conducted in 1997, is between 9g and 9.5g a day.
“As more meals are made available through the food industry, be it in restaurants or prepared food bought in supermarkets, there is a growing opportunity for the industry to reduce salt levels,” Goddard said.
This is particularly important, says AWASH, as it has been proven that a diet high in salt is a major determinant of high blood pressure, accounting for 62% of strokes and 49% of heart disease worldwide.
There is no hard-and-fast solution for reducing salt in food.
This is mainly due to the fact that salt plays a varied role in different food categories and in a lot of cases salt reduction does not involve simply taking salt out of the product.
“As a food manufacturer you need to consider how reducing or removing salt will impact of the taste, texture and quality of the product,” Goddard explained.
“If it serves the role of a preservative, for instance, you may need to reformulate the recipe to maintain the product’s integrity.”
Goddard also refers to pleasing the consumer palette as a main consideration.
“You need to adjust the consumer palette to a certain salt level slowly or risk your product failing,” Goddard said.
This was the case for Unilever during the 1980s when they began taking salt out of margarine.
By 1988 when the Tick was introduced, Unilever and major competitors had reduced salt levels to 1% in a significant part of their range.
“Unilever moved, our competitor’s moved, everyone started to move at the same pace and we therefore successfully adjusted the Australian palette to lower-salt margarine,” Goddard said.
In more recent times, the salt content across Unilever’s Continental range of products has been reduced.
Between 2001 and 2004, 130 products including soups and sauces, were reformulated, reducing sodium by an average of 25%.
Since 2004 a further 8% of sodium has been taken out of the company’s Continental product range, resulting in approximately 44 tonnes of salt being removed from the food supply.
“This process was done slowly and gradually, and involved extensive consumer research and bench top research and development throughout the process,” Goddard said.
Goddard adds that the food industry needs to approach the issue of salt reduction together and category by category to ensure that consumers come on board.
AWASH concurs, arguing that while consumers are used to salty foods, it is possible to reduce levels by a certain amount over time without people noticing.
The end result of a product, its taste profile, is not the only consideration for manufacturers reducing the salt content of products.
The manufacturing process is just as important.
In Unilever’s experience, reducing salt levels in dried mixes like Continental’s Cup-a-Soup involves blending ingredients in a different combination.
This could include replacing some of the sodium chloride with potassium chloride, which is regarded as an acceptable alternative, or intensifying another flavour or ingredient in the mix to compensate for the low salt content.
While these changes seem simple enough they are not without their challenges.
Potassium chloride, for instance, provides a salty taste, albeit different to sodium, but there is only so much that can be added to a mixture before it gives it a bitter taste.
Also, many of the flavours used are supplied in carriers of salt.
“Often the salt in our formulations hasn’t come from us adding sodium chloride to the recipe, its come as a result of the ingredients we’ve purchased,” Goddard said.
“We now need to work with our suppliers to reduce their sodium levels which will be a real challenge for all.”
In product categories like wet food products and margarine, there are technical challenges involved with reducing salt.
Salt in margarine acts as a preservative by reducing water activity and the growth of micro-organisms.
Therefore reducing sodium levels involves ensuring the micro-sized water droplets are made even smaller in the overall dispersion of the mix so there is less opportunity for micro-organism contamination.
This involves a change in processing technology, including the equipment and how it is used.
“Extensive technical skills in your research and development and formulation areas are essential to deliver a product to the market that has less salt and is accepted by consumers,” advised Goddard.
Consumer’s may be driving the health trend, but initiatives such as the Heart Foundation’s Tick and AWASH’s Drop the Salt campaign are ultimately setting the benchmarks for sodium in new product development.
The continuing review of Tick criteria in coming years will force further salt reductions.
A four-phase strategy by AWASH will monitor companies’ progress in reducing salt and assist them in achieving their goals.
As part of the Drop the Salt campaign, food manufacturers are being asked to commit to reducing salt in their products by 25% over the next five years, developing detailed action plans which they will then be monitored against.
A databank will also be developed to monitor the salt levels of key brands across high-salt product categories.
AWASH is campaigning for adequate methods of measuring sodium intake to be included in the 2009 national diet and physical activity survey.
While AWASH will work closely with the industry to ensure a strong commitment, industry self-regulation will remain an important part of reducing salt levels further in the future.
“Companies are changing the composition of food all the time, creating novel processes to improve their products,” AWASH’s Webster said.
“There is no reason, therefore, why manufacturers cannot reformulate food to reduce, and further reduce, its salt content.”
Webster adds that many food manufacturers have already taken this approach to food innovation but there is still progress to be made.