Food companies say they can’t cut salt levels any further. Health campaigners disagree. So is there more the industry could do?

At 222 pages, a new report by scientists detailing the food industry’s mixed results in reducing salt content is arguably the most comprehensive study to date of how far suppliers and retailers have gone to make their products healthier.

With experts claiming reductions in salt levels could prevent 36,000 heart attacks and strokes every year - saving the NHS billions - the stakes could not be much higher. Yet interpretation of the research could hardly be more polarised.

Industry bodies the BRC and FDF, who commissioned the study by Leatherhead Food Research, claim it shows companies have “reached the limits” of what is possible and the government should now scrap its sweeping salt reduction targets and aim its fire elsewhere - notably the catering and hospitality sectors.

But health campaigners have accused the industry of behaving like “dinosaurs” and claim the research shows target-setting has already come tantalisingly close to making huge breakthroughs in health that must be persevered with.

So what does the research show? Can the industry justify its stance or is there much more that could be done?

Leatherhead’s research came a week after The Grocer revealed a raft of leading companies, including the likes of Kraft and General Mills, were set to miss their 2012 Responsibility Deal salt targets - in some cases spectacularly.

Its report, based on research among nearly 120 companies, the vast majority of whom have taken action to cut salt, shows for certain foods, there are huge technical and taste barriers.

A reduction in salt’s preservative powers could lead to enormous levels of food waste, it warns. Industry pilots show salt cuts can produce potentially dangerous pathogens in meat and lead to a worrying ‘greening’ effect, it adds.

Another issue is products with protected geographical status, such as Camembert de Normandie and feta cheeses, which would not only risk compromising their product integrity if salt levels were reduced, but also their protected status.

Not that overseas producers will be overly worried - they’re not affected by the Responsibility Deal. Leatherhead cites the example of canned fish: “Since most of the canned fish available in the UK is sourced from overseas, salt levels are largely within their control.”

For these and other products such as extruded and pelleted snacks and many puddings, step-changes in salt are not only impracticable but in some cases unenforceable. This has not, however, stopped them trying to tackle the problem.

The report reveals the race is on to make new scientific breakthroughs in salt reduction. One area being explored is the alteration of salt crystal sizes to allow bigger salt hits with less intake. Another is the use of nanotechnology. But there is “very limited” evidence any of these techniques make a tangible difference, notes the report, adding that the potential use of potassium-based solutions in raising agents currently falls foul of DH guidance

Food companies argue that in light of this and the challenges faced by some categories in making further cuts, the government should relax its salt targets and focus its attention on those that have not yet taken action. “There are no easy wins left for those that have been engaged in this for a number of years, but there are for those who’ve not engaged,” says Barbara Gallani, FDF director of food science and safety.

These would include the 30% of food suppliers and retailers still not signed up to the Responsibility Deal, and companies in the hospitality sector, which does not yet have a salt agreement. But while those who commissioned the report argue that it shows the need for a new approach, many in the health lobby argue the opposite.

Consensus Action on Salt & Health (Cash), which carried out its own work in parallel to the Leatherhead research, claims “only a few products” have proved difficult to reformulate and argues that the food industry has a “wide range of technologies” that can be deployed to make further cuts.

“If one company is able to meet them, why can’t the rest?” contends Cash chairman Professor Graham MacGregor. Changes in taste and appearance should not count as a technical barrier, he adds, in stark contrast to Leatherhead, which says: “It could be argued the main challenge in reducing salt in meat products in not the reduction in saltiness, but the loss of impact on enhancing the meaty and savoury flavours.”

Nutritionists on the front line, meanwhile, deny claims they are not doing enough to hit DH targets of reducing salt intake to a maximum of 6g per day and slashing industry levels 15% by the end of 2012 on 2010 levels.

“We’re very close to the limit of what can be done,” says Helen Lynn, head of technology innovation/nutrition at Premier Foods, which claims it is on course to hit its target of removing 286 tonnes of salt across 15 categories by the end of the year, having reformulated products including Hovis bread and Batchelors Super Noodles.

“I don’t know anyone who eats food just for health,” she adds. “You have to make changes that are acceptable to consumer tastes.”

The Grocer has learned health secretary Andrew Lansley is planning a crisis summit with the food and drink industry later this year to discuss how it can “drive forward” progress. The DH is planning new measures for the hospitality and catering sector, with new pledges to be unveiled soon.

Whatever happens next, you can be sure nobody is going to take it with a pinch of salt.

The alternatives

  • U-turn: The report calls for the DH to review its advice against using potassium-based solutions and give clear safety guidance for other alternatives to salt being developed
  • Technology: It identifies more than a dozen new products that could replace salt or reduce its impact. Some feature different sized salt crystals (reducing intake), some use nanotechnology
  • Spices: The BRC and FDF are calling for a consumer education programme to encourage more use of herbs and spices