Less salt more action

Salt in processed foods amounts to more than 75% of that consumed by Australians. Combating this is the campaign by Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH) to reduce these numbers, which is gaining momentum.

AWASH originally launched its ‘Drop the Salt!’ campaign in May 2007, aiming to develop a five-year strategy to reduce salt in processed foods by 25%. This strategy aims to secure a high level commitment from Australia’s food industry to activate ways of reformulating food products with lower salt options. The Australian food industry has begun to make progress in this area and to recognise that more needs to be done.

In an important development for the scheme, Coles has announced new standards for its Housebrand products, including reduced salt content. Coles new Housebrand Quality Brand Standards will assist the retailer to enhance the nutritional value of its Housebrand foods, with the document setting targets in areas such as salt, fat and artificial colours and flavours.

“In new Housebrand products, we will minimise the use of added salt by 25% over five years and aim to be lower than the leading market brand equivalent,” said Coles quality manager, Jackie Healing.

The AWASH chair, Professor Bruce Neal, congratulated Coles, saying that “Coles is to be applauded for making such a definitive commitment to salt reduction. We can only hope that other major players in the food industry will follow this lead. Salt reduction is probably the single largest unmet opportunity for preventing chronic disease in Australia and it is just not getting the attention it requires.”

The new Coles brand standards document also lays out guidelines for ingredient lists, stating that Coles has committed to use natural colours and flavours in their Housebrand products where possible. Coles will not permit the use of added flavour enhancers such as MSG and glutamates, and has committed to “challenge the unnecessary use of preservatives and the quantities in which they are used.”

Healing explained that “the brand standards document has been developed to ensure that we support the virtues of a balanced eating plan. Coles recognises that we sell a wide range of goods. Our role is to provide our customers with food and information to make healthy choices, easily.

“The standards are effective immediately for new products but the process will not happen overnight.”

Coles’ salt reduction initiative involves a detailed implementation strategy, which will see the gradual reduction of added salt and sodium to ensure product quality and safety attributes are maintained and product expectations are not adversely affected.

Due to contractual and product specific agreements with Housebrand suppliers this will not be an instant process,. However, as the product lines come up for review, Coles plans to challenge suppliers to reduce the use of added salt and sodium as well as the levels for all new Housebrand food lines.

One of the ways Coles will be encouraging suppliers to reduce the added salt will be by using other ingredients such as herbs, spices, vinegar and lemon juice to boost flavour and counteract the impact of the reductions. Coles also plans to include products with no added salt to the range; as well as allowing suppliers to use salt substitutes in foods created for specific dietary needs, such as products developed for people with high blood pressure.


Salt acts as a flavour enhancer and preservative, while playing a crucial health role when consumed in moderation. However it is the ‘consumed in moderation’ part that has many people worried, with too much salt leading to serious health problems.

Of course the salt and sodium reduction trend won’t be news to most. However one of the biggest hurdles facing food manufacturers remains the same — looking for a successful sodium reduction solution is as simple as it is frustrating: there’s simply nothing like salt.

No single ingredient can be used to replace the functionality of salt in food. Breads, for example, use sodium as a functional ingredient to manage the consistency, taste, texture, and growth of the dough. If the salt is reduced or removed entirely, the bread is drastically changed — that is, if it can be produced at all.

Consumers are accustomed to a lot of salt in their food and manufacturers of salt substitutes or light salts have attacked the problem by developing mixtures of table salt and other compounds. Many salt substitutes contain potassium chloride, however, while small amounts of dietary potassium can lessen some of the harm of excess sodium, too much supplemental potassium can also be harmful.

Because industry-wide sodium reduction is such a formidable challenge — and such a high priority — it is necessary for food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, food technologist and engineers to combine their efforts to find innovative ways to tackle the issue.

Innovations in the tools food manufacturers use to produce their product will be critical as the industry moves into an increasingly health-conscious time.

Formulation, modifications and substitution research from ingredient suppliers is also essential. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there will be a solution that works for all food products across the entire industry.

Taking on the challenge

While tackling a brand new set of limitations may make some food manufacturers weary, there is good news. Not only are there plenty of promising innovations being tested and used already, but the challenges the industry faces should definitely lead to exciting opportunities. As the public in general becomes more health and flavour savvy, partially replacing salts with herbs and other spices may lead to wide consumer acceptance.

Changing a product’s pH, utilising salt mimetics, and developing equipment that can sidestep the need for extraneous sodium during the manufacturing process are all ways in which food manufacturers can explore and conquer the sodium-reduction issue. Taking into account that every individual has a different taste perception thorough taste-testing will yield a much clearer picture about consumer tolerance for lower-sodium products.

Embracing the challenge of low-sodium manufacturing is likely to lead to innovation in the industry. Lowering sodium levels can contribute positively to both the health of the consumer and the ability of the food manufacturer to adapt to an ever-changing industry.

Individual food company agreements are being negotiated with AWASH experts, and significant steps are being taken by the industry, partly in order to meet the criteria required to obtain the National Heart Foundation’s Tick accreditation, but also as awareness of AWASH objectives grow.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council advocates that the food industry should continue to review product formulations and processing technologies with a view to reducing the use of salt, whilst still ensuring that food products remain appealing to consumers in taste, convenience and price, and that product safety and integrity can be maintained throughout an appropriate shelf-life.

Many other manufacturers have already made a significant impact on reducing salt in foods. Heinz Australia signed up as a supporter in principle of the AWASH group, and has been reducing salt in recipes across a range of products such as soups, meals and sauces for some time.

Kellogg commenced their salt reduction program in 1997, and has reduced the sodium content in 12 key products, including Sultana Bran, Rice Bubbles and Corn Flakes by an average of 40%.

Lowan Whole Foods recently re-launched and extended its children’s range of cereals to improve nutritional values including having a low level of salt. All products in the Lowan Kids range now meet the criteria for a low salt food. Lowan has set a significant benchmark when it comes to salt reduction.

The Sanitarium Health Food Company recognised the importance of salt reduction back in 2000, and introduced a Corporate Nutrition Policy that set key nutrient benchmarks, including sodium for each product category. With the introduction of the Corporate Nutrition Policy, several products were re-formulated to reduce the sodium content.

The Smith’s Snackfood Company is committed to reducing the salt content across its entire product range by 25% over the next five years and has already started to make progress. It has reduced the sodium level in Smith’s Original Crinkle Cut Potato Chips, the most popular potato chip flavour in the Smith’s range, by 17% versus the level in 2006. Changes will vary from product to product as the company balances reducing salt levels with not adversely affecting taste and consumer acceptability.

Unilever Australasia has made salt one of the four nutrients (along with saturated fat, trans fat and sugar) that it has been reducing in its products since 2001 as part of its Nutrition Enhancement Program. Sodium criteria have been developed to guide new product development and these benchmarks are regularly reviewed. The salt reduction program is underpinned by an on-going technical research program in the company’s research centres in Germany and the Netherlands.

AWASH is inviting views and comments on proposals for developing targets for salt levels for specific products and focusing on processed meats, bread and the fast food sector to be made by 30 September, 2008.

Maya Gorelik is a freelance journalist for FOOD Magazine.

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