Sugar takes all the oxygen out of the room when it comes to health and food nowadays. It makes sense why – the impacts of excessive sugar consumption are visible pretty quick.
But salt is a lot more insidious. You may not even feel the effects of over-consumption until it’s too late. Salt has also transitioned from a humdrum kitchen staple to a trendy, premium product, what with the pink salts, black salts, sea salts, finishing salts, flavored salts, et. al. This has thrown a Salt Bae-sized spanner in the works of salt reduction strategies in general.
And, let’s be honest, all that salt is what makes certain foods taste great.
Relationship status with sodium: It’s complicated
Sodium, one of the key components of salt, is very important for a number of body functions, but it is only needed in tiny doses. Excessive sodium increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death and disability globally. The greater the sodium intake the more our blood pressure rises, and conversely reducing sodium reduces the blood pressure. There is also growing evidence linking high sodium intake to increased risk of other health conditions such as gastric cancer, kidney disease, obesity, and osteoporosis. As such, reducing how much sodium we consume is a simple, cost-effective method to improve health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that we limit salt consumption to less than 5 grams a day (which translates to <2000 mg/day sodium). However, the global average salt intake is more than double that, standing at 10.8 grams currently (around 4,000mg of sodium).
In the recently released “WHO Global Report on Sodium Intake Reduction”, the WHO tracked the progress of sodium reduction across its member countries and found that most countries are off-track in terms of reaching the sodium reduction goals agreed upon.
All 194 member states had pledged to reduce population sodium intake by 30% by 2025, but most are off-track in reaching this goal. According to the report:
- Only 5% of the states had implemented at least two mandatory and comprehensive sodium reduction policies for tackling noncommunicable diseases
- 22% had implemented at least one mandatory policy
- 33% implemented at least one voluntary policy and other measures towards sodium reduction
- 29% had only committed towards a policy for sodium reduction.
In terms of the scoring system developed by the WHO, these are ranked the best to worst member states in terms of implementing salt reduction strategies.
The food industry plays a major role
While we get sodium from adding salt to the food we cook and naturally from a few food sources, the majority of the sodium in our diet is from processed, packaged, and restaurant food. And salt content across most processed food categories – from bread and snacks to cured meats and plant-based meat alternatives – has been found to exceed recommended levels.
The American Heart Association estimates that around 75% of US consumers’ daily sodium intake is from food outside of home. This is why food manufacturers can play a significant role in countries’ and consumers’ salt reduction efforts. Most major manufacturers have hinted at salt reduction across their portfolios, though these don’t always get as much publicity as sugar reduction. For example, within the ready-to-eat and snacks categories, the share of low salt and low sodium claims are higher than low sugar, in part because of the nature of these categories. But when you take into account the difference in prevalence of the different claims, it may not have the same impact – low sugar claims are 11X higher than low salt and 2.75X higher than low sodium claims.
Source: Ai Palette
Source: Ai Palette
One of the main reasons why salt reduction by companies happens with less fanfare compared to sugar reduction is just because consumers perceive low-salt products to have diminished taste.
However, studies into this area indicate that a significant amount of salt can be reduced from packaged foods without impacting the taste drastically and without consumers even noticing this change. The UK had been very successful in the stealth reduction of salt from bread, attaining a 20% reduction between 2001 and 2011 without anyone noticing any difference. More recently, however, this progress has stalled. A 2023 analysis of 242 packaged bread products in the UK found that while most fell below the maximum salt target, many still did not meet these standards. In fact, a few were said to have at least as much salt as a bag of chips (or crisps).
The WHO report recommends a few interventions that include reformulating packaged foods to contain less salt, front-of-pack labeling that indicates sodium content, and mass media campaigns to spread awareness.
The US FDA, in an effort to promote salt reduction, recently proposed that salt substitutes could be used in standardized foods where salt is identified as a required or optional ingredient. Though such substitution will largely depend on how much the replacement impacts taste, the most important attribute for consumers.
Some salt substitutes that have popped up in recent years, include:
- Potassium: Replacing a portion of regular table salt with a potassium chloride substitute can balance out blood pressure. The only issue to beware of here is that too much KCl can add a bitter aftertaste to the final product.
- Monosodium glutamate: The infamous MSG has started to regain favor once again. It has two-thirds less sodium compared to regular table salt and can be a replacement for some salt without a significant change in taste.
- Spice blends: Studies have shown that the use of herbs and spices in sodium-reduced meals can enhance saltiness, and reduce the requirement for salt.
We took a look at how prevalent salt reduction as a theme spread across food and drink categories in the US vs the UK and found that there is significant room for improvement across the board. Low salt and low sodium have significantly less consumer engagement compared to low sugar, but consumers appear to respond more to low sodium as a claim compared to low salt – this could just be that sodium sounds more “chemical-y” compared to salt.
For food manufacturers, this could very well be the key to getting greater reception to their reformulated products with this claim.
Source: Ai Palette Foresight Engine (as of May 2023)