Salt -At the Heart of the Matter

It’s great to see that Public Health England is getting serious about cardiovascular disease (CVD) and have outlined their priorities for action for 2016/2017. In this document they highlight some worrying UK statistics:

• 26% of all deaths are caused by CVD
• 1 in 4 premature deaths are caused by CVD
• 7 million affected by CVD
• CVD costs the National Health Service (NHS) £6.8 billion/year

CVD is not just a problem for the UK, it is a global issue, and as part of the strategy to improve the situation, nutritional guidelines have been developed in many countries including the recommendation to reduce sodium in the diet.
The primary source of sodium in Western diets is sodium chloride (salt) from processed foods and foods eaten outside of the home.

What’s happening in the food industry?
UK food manufacturing has done an excellent job in reducing salt in our diets by voluntarily reducing salt in processed foods – especially where it is safe and reasonably easy to do so. They are ahead of the global game in many ways and the strategies that are being used in the UK are being copied around the world. However, dietary salt intake at population level remains in excess of the recommended 6g/day, at around 8.1g/day. This means that there is still some scope for further reduction.

What are the technical challenges?
Broadly speaking the technical challenges are:

• Taste
• Functionality
• Preservation

Some of the most challenging application areas are meat, cheese and bread – each providing unique concerns for the food technologist. However salt replacement technology is developing apace with the introduction of different strategies – many which are outlined in a new book “Developing Food Products for Consumers with Specific Dietary Needs”, by Elsevier Press,(2016).

Exciting developments – mineral salts
In the coming years sodium reduction may take on a new focus with the use of minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium salts. These individual salts or salt combinations are often used as 1:1 replacements for sodium chloride in a formulation or process. The Joint SACN/COT Potassium-based Sodium Replacers Working Group is due to report on the risk/benefits of this type of strategy in March 2017. This report is long overdue from a manufacturing perspective as development work in some application areas has ground to a halt due to lack of evidence-led guidance when using substituted minerals as sodium replacers. It is envisaged that mineral-based sodium replacement strategies may be useful for the more challenging application areas and would therefore be useful in the technical struggle to reach UK targets.

Minerals and health – labelling
The US government has recently acknowledged the deficiency of potassium in the diet by making the labelling of potassium a mandatory feature of nutrition labels. A UK petition is urging the government to do the same, but for a different reason, as it would end the processed food challenges experienced by chronic kidney disease sufferers who have to limit their potassium intake. It is hoped that these developments will have positive outcomes for both population health and those individuals who are looking to control potassium intake.

In the meantime sodium reduction levels in processed foods have plateaued and although there are still some perceived economic and commercial limitations for some application categories – political imperative and technological development around salt replacement seem to be improving the chances to meet dietary recommendations, improve the health of the nation and thereby reduce health costs.