Manufacturers warn of the risk of blandness, crumbling Cheddar and botulism. But is the whole premise suspect?

For a mineral as essential to our survival as air or water, salt has suffered something of a bad press of late. And while the Food Standards Agency’s latest warnings may have fired up the redtops, food manufacturers have been rather less appreciative of the tough new targets set for salt reduction.

The FSA says the current intake for UK adults is 8.6g. By reducing that to 6g, it believes it can prevent 20,000 premature deaths linked to excessive salt intake every year.

Revised targets
Bacon: An initial 2010 target for an average salt content of 3.5g per 100g has been revised down to a maximum of 3.25g with a new goal of 2.88g set for 2012. 

Ham/other cured meats: The reward for suppliers meeting the 2010 target of 2.5g (average) two years ahead of schedule is a revised 2010 target of 2.13g maximum salt content and a 2012 target of 1.75g (maximum).

Sausages: Despite concerns that binding and succulence could be jeopardised, the 2010 target of 1.4g (maximum) has been revised down to 1.13g (maximum). 

Cheese: The 2012 target for mild Cheddar cheese has actually been revised up from 1.7g (average) to 1.8g (average) in light of technical issues, but mature Cheddars and hard pressed cheeses will have to lose a further 4% salt if they are to hit 2012 goals.
Industry insiders, however, have raised concerns that the new targets for 2012 are unrealistic and technically infeasible, claiming the taste profile is being jeopardised and, in extreme cases, that the targets present genuine food safety issues. Some are even questioning the premise behind the campaign.

One major gripe concerns the process the FSA followed to reach its revised targets for 2012. In some foods it is demanding a 40% reduction in salt content from 2010 levels. “Despite saying they would consult the industry first, they’ve gone ahead and published targets without doing so,” says Claire Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation.

The FSA claims it took into account information from meetings held with the industry as well as expert advice on technical and safety issues. But manufacturers are sceptical, arguing that there is more focus on hitting the 6g-a-day intake target than the practicalities involved in product reformulation.

“When the initial targets were laid down we agreed to an average across a whole product category,” says Cheney. “They’ve changed some of these to a maximum content for all products, which presents difficulties in reformulation.” For vacuum-packed hams, these difficulties are more like full-blown health scares, with the risk of botulism a genuine threat, according to Cheney.

Other difficulties are of a more practical nature. Binding and succulence can be a problem when too much salt is removed from sausages and burgers. Hard cheeses, such as Cheddar, require sodium to ensure the structure and texture of the cheese remain stable. There are concerns that new targets could see the future of cheese literally crumble.

“We are concerned about some of the detail of the new targets, specifically where they have been changed from average salt content to maximum,” says Dairy UK technical director Ed Komorowski. “Though seemingly minor, the changes make a huge difference and present a technical challenge.”

Consumers are already complaining of blandness in products such as ready meals and sandwiches, says Kaarin Goodburn, secretary general of the Chilled Food Association. She fears saddling suppliers with harsher targets will drive consumers to foodservice, where no strict guidelines for salt reduction exist. The 87% of SMEs that make up the catering and foodservice industry will receive “practical advice on kitchen practices and menu planning,” according to the FSA. Hardly a call to arms.

“There’s only so much the food industry can do,” says Goodburn. “We’ve gone a really long way but are people going to buy sandwiches that taste bland? No.”

Among the tit-for-tat arguments on targets and reformulation, the FSA’s announcement has reopened a larger debate over just how bad salt really is. The key message behind the first phase of the FSA’s campaign, launched in September 2004, was ‘too much salt is bad for your heart’. The evidence is less clear. 

The Cochrane Review of 2008 found that a reduction in salt intake did lower blood pressure, but only by a small amount and only after more than a year. Furthermore, it stated: “This reduction was not enough to expect an important health benefit.” 

The FSA can support its stance with a number of studies including He (1999) and Tuomilehto (2001), which found that in obese people, lower salt intake may reduce the risk of heart problems.

Yet in cohort studies, such as Alderman (1995), lower salt intake in those susceptible to high blood pressure (for example pregnant women and the elderly) was actually linked with an increased risk.

So is the FSA adopting a one-eyed approach to salt reduction?

“The whole premise is suspect,” says Jim Winship, chairman of the British Sandwich Association. “The FSA has produced the results it wanted – ie that salt is bad. There’s a stigma against salt that has been foisted on the government by a few enthusiasts. Let’s have some balance.”

His objections may fall on deaf ears. For now at least, the pressure on salt levels remains.