Trade bodies have hit back at claims the dairy industry is not doing enough to reduce the salt content of cheese.

A report published by campaign group Consensus Action on Salt and Health today (7 August) found salt levels were typically higher in branded cheese than supermarket own-label products. This “demonstrates it is technically possible to produce cheese with less salt in it”, it claimed.

CASH chairman Professor Graham MacGregor said it was vital the Department of Health forced the cheese industry to implement new targets on salt immediately - and set more challenging targets for the future.

Dairy UK Chief Executive Dr Judith Bryans told The Grocer it was “disingenuous” to suggest cheese makers were not doing “everything they can” to address issues around salt. But, she added, there were food safety and quality concerns over lowering the salt content of cheese.

Why does cheese need salt?

Juliet Harbutt, chairman of the British Cheese Awards, on salt and cheese safety:

Without doubt there are some processed and commercially made cheeses that have a higher than necessary salt content but salt is essential not for flavour but to the microbiological safety of cheese

Fresh cheeses like cottage cheese are made and consumed in a very short period of time and don’t need much salt to keep them safe.

Pickled cheeses like Feta are preserved in salt - consumers who want a less salty Feta simply soak it in milk or water before consumption. Haloumi, made the same way for centuries, also has a higher than average salt content for similar reasons.

Cheddar and other hard cheeses on the other hand, like the great air dried hams of Europe, are made safe by the slow absorption of salt and the expulsion of water. They are large and have a considerably lower moisture content then fresh cheeses and take months to age therefore they must have more salt that a fresh cheese. Classic Blue cheeses have a slightly higher content because of their unique moisture, acidity and microclimate.

I agree that we need to have some regulations to limit heavy handed salting of food but this is ridiculous. Don’t mess with my Stilton and my traditional Cheddars and leave my mouth-wateringly salty Roquefort as it has been for centuries.

“Salt is in an integral part of the cheesemaking process for technical and safety reasons,” said Bryans. “In an effort to provide British consumers with nutritious, safe and wholesome cheeses, the dairy industry has made significant steps forward to reduce the salt content of dairy products over the last few years and cheese manufacturers have worked very hard to overcome technical barriers to salt reduction.”

Cheddar cheese contributed to just 1% of salt intake in the UK, she added.

The CASH study found that, on average, halloumi and imported blue cheese contained the highest amounts of salt – and were more salty than seawater, it claimed, while cottage cheese contained the lowest amount of salt.

“The study rightly states that many imported varieties do have a significantly higher salt content than British cheeses and that there are variations between products with the same name,” said Nigel White, secretary of the British Cheese Board. “But cheese is a natural product and there will be a natural variation in salt content even within the same dairy.”

White added that the industry had worked hard to bring down salt levels in a range of products. Echoing Bryans’ views, he said the industry had now reached a stage where further reductions became “much more” difficult without affecting product quality or risking product safety.

“Salt is added not just for flavour but to slow down acidification in the curd, then to expel surplus moisture from the curd and finally to act as a preservative and prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria,” he said.