Katherine Rich: Industry working hard to reduce salt in products

16/11/12

Salt is the world’s oldest food additive and a necessity for human life. It has influenced human existence since before recorded history, when humans learned of its role in food safety and preservation by slowing down spoilage. At the end of the 15th Century, Portuguese and Spanish fishermen were among the first to use it commercially, salting the cod caught in North American waters to preserve it for sale in Europe. It was because of salt’s special qualities that as far back as 10,000 BC it was traded ounce-for-ounce for gold, and Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt (referred to in Latin as salarium, the origin of the word salary).

Salt is no longer essential for preservation to the same degree, but it still has an important role in food production particularly by making foods appealing by enhancing other tastes. It makes sweets taste sweeter, it makes bitter foods, such as chocolate and broccoli, delicious, and it enhances colour, texture, appearance, and aroma. Not unimportantly, humans need a certain amount of it to survive because we can’t produce our own sodium or chloride, and salt (sodium chloride) is required for blood, sweat, digestive juices and efficient nerve transmission.

Despite the body’s need for salt, most New Zealanders consume well in excess of what is needed. And there’s little doubt that consuming too much over a long period can lead to health problems in the form high blood pressure, which is a risk factor of cardiovascular disease.

The food industry in Australia recently came under attack after a report by the George Institute for Global Health found that the amount of hidden salt in everyday foods rose by 9 per cent between 2008 and 2011, prompting the institute to renew its push for a reduction across numerous food categories. But it failed to acknowledge that many sectors had been successful in reducing the sodium content. In New Zealand, the need for less salt in food is no different. Our average daily intake is 9.5 grams a day (the same as Australia), compared to the World Health Organisation’s recommended 5 grams.

The Heart Foundation says some 75 per cent of daily intake comes from processed foods. That’s where the food manufacturing industry comes in. So what is the industry doing?

Well, food companies have been aware for some time that we consume too much salt, and have been working on reducing it in products for more than a decade. Bread reformulation has taken place quickly, and latest figures show manufacturers have reduced salt in many brands by up to 15%, removing about 150 tonnes from the bread supply each year. Cereals reformulation has achieved reductions of between 5% and 25%, removing hundreds of tonnes of salt each year. One company has reduced levels in its main products by 20 per cent, helping in a reduction of 276 tonnes from its entire range. Even in the pie sector, one major manufacturer has made significant reductions in not only salt, but also saturated fat.

Of late, the industry has been working alongside other stakeholders by way of the Heart Foundation’s HeartSAFE programme. This collaboration of manufacturers, food industry associations, and health and regulatory agencies supports the work already done by manufacturers, and further good progress is being made.

The bread industry has a group working on further reductions, while cereal manufacturers are continuing to reformulate products, working towards sector-wide guidelines for 2014. HeartSAFE has also started work on processed meats, with manufacturers setting guidelines for reducing salt in sausages, ham, and bacon by the end of next year. One major sausage manufacturer has already reformulated to ensure its entire sausage range complies, more than a year ahead of target.

But you can never please everyone, and some activist groups still believe progress isn’t fast enough and regulation is needed. Such calls are, however, often simplistic and unrealistic. To begin with, it’s almost impossible in some cases to remove salt from the manufacturing process because of huge variations in foods and their processing. That’s one reason why no country has regulated to remove salt from food.

Another reason is that people like the taste that salt produces, and that means its removal has to be done gradually, almost by stealth. Taking, say, 5 per cent of salt out one year and another 5 per cent the next gives pallets time to adjust. If it doesn’t happen that slowly, consumers will reject the low-salt options and the whole exercise will have been in vain.  Overseas experience shows that such iterative reduction models work best, and that is an approach the Heart Foundation agrees with. Certainly the finger-pointing and demonising of companies by activist groups that characterise campaigns in the UK and Australia are not approaches that are likely to work in New Zealand.

Public debate around food tends to swing from fat to salt to sugar to fat to salt to sugar and back again, but the issues remain the same.  You can’t get away from the good nutrition principle that too much of anything is not a good thing, and that demonising nutrients can be confusing to consumers genuinely trying to follow a healthy diet.

Working collaboratively is the way to go, and the Ministry for Primary Industries has given credit to some industry groups for front-footing the issue without a lot of pressure being needed. Industry must continue to show progress to ensure calls for regulation do not gather any sort of momentum. So far, progress has been excellent, and some companies must be congratulated. But they cannot continue to bear the responsibility of the whole industry. Everyone needs to take some action and responsibility, because a combined effort is needed. More can be done, so let’s make sure progress is on-going.

If there’s an opportunity for companies to reduce salt levels and maintain the appeal of their products, they should be doing it. Above all, New Zealanders should be considering their salt intake to benefit their health