The fault with salt

TORONTO — Many people admit they reach for the salt shaker too often but it is the hidden sodium in the average diet that is more risky.

“The salt shaker on average only contributes 10 percent of the sodium. It is what is already in the food you are ordering that you can’t touch. That is why governments are putting so much pressure on the food manufacturers to lower their sodium,” said Brian Boor, president of Nutek Food Sciences. His company, based in Nebraska, has patented a technology to use more potassium chloride as a partial substitute for sodium chloride in food processing.

Sodium chloride has been used for thousands of years for taste and food preservation. It is an essential element required in small amounts for normal functioning of the body but excessive amounts may cause high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

As those diseases affect people’s health and tax health-care systems, governments around the world are taking a more active role in encouraging their citizens to eat healthier.

Some countries have mandated allowable levels of sodium in processed foods while others like Canada have a voluntary approach.

People are eating more processed foods for convenience but may not be aware of sodium levels in many common foods like baked goods, processed meats, prepared dishes and soups, said Charmaine Kuran of Health Canada.

Health Canada estimates the average daily sodium intake of Canadians is about 2,760 milligrams, which is higher than the recommended goal of 2,300 mg. One teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium.

However more Canadians are eating less than a few years ago when the average daily intake was 3,400 mg.

Foods with lower sodium levels have been available for 20 years but work is ongoing to find new formulations or substitutes to maintain taste and quality.

Companies are encouraged to commit to meet reduction targets and while some progress has been made, recent surveys show many food manufacturers are just scratching the surface.

“Maybe it is enough to say there is this momentum in the industry to start removing sodium and how that can be achieved,” Kuran said at a recent sodium reduction workshop sponsored by the Canadian Meat Council.

In February 2018, Health Canada proposed regulations that would require a front-of-package nutrition symbol on foods high in sodium, sugars, or saturated fat to help Canadians make healthier food choices.

Health Canada examined more than 10,000 food labels across Canada to evaluate sodium levels in the different food categories. The final report card said voluntary sodium reduction in processed foods accounted for a decrease of about eight percent in average daily intake between 2010 and 2017.

“Under half the categories hadn’t been really anywhere significant. They are pretty much hovering around zero progress,” Kuran said.

The surveys also learned about half of females aged 14-18 are eating more sodium than they should while the other half are following better eating habits.

Sodium consumption is well over the limit for young men between 14-30.

“There aren’t hugely different types of foods that that age group is eating. A lot of it has to do with the amount they are eating,” Kuran said.

Sodium appears in unexpected products.

The top five food items with higher amount of sodium include bakery products in everything from bread to cookies, mixed dishes, processed meats, cheeses and soups.

When it comes to processed meats the government found bacon did not always meet the maximum reduction target but deli meats were more successful in reducing sodium levels.

Food served in restaurants showed a wide range of sodium content.

For example, breaded chicken served at food service ranges between 100 to 1,071 mg of sodium per 100 grams. Marinated and seasoned meats were 38 mg to 3,372 mg per 100 grams of product.

However, a similar product found at grocery stores appears to be lower but that may be due to a different analysis.

Cookies sold at food service and retail could range between 120-672 mg/100 grams.

During a recent meat council workshop processors discussed the challenges of reformulating recipes, guarding against food borne pathogens and following government regulations. Sodium can extend the shelf life of products and make recipes work. For example certain recipes need salt for protein and gluten development in bread production.

In addition, regulatory requirements may state a specific amount of salt is needed in certain meat products for food safety. If the salt is removed, introducing other technologies could be expensive. Further, companies attempting salt reduction have to prove their approaches are acceptable to regulators like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

There are other ingredients and processing strategies that may allow some salt reduction in meat processing. These include substitutions like potassium chloride, use of phosphates or high pressure processing.

Food microbiologist Lynn McMullen of the University of Alberta has researched different meat processing techniques using less sodium to understand how reduced levels in recipes might affect the growth of harmful bacteria like listeria.

“Adding salt to foods provides a hurdle to microbial growth. It acts as a barrier to bacterial pathogens to be able to grow in food,” she said.

Listeria is the major concern in processed meats. Reduction in sodium could cause an increase in the growth of bacteria in packaged meat like sausages, hot dogs and ham.

Research into a sodium-reduced ham found listeria grew faster when salt levels were at 0.5 percent than one percent sodium chloride. However adding special microflora to the surface of the product minimized the impact of lower sodium chloride concentrations.

There are also some beneficial antimicrobial compounds herbs and spices. Essential oils in oregano have antimicrobial properties but so much is required, the flavour is changed.

“As soon as you start taking out the flavour you are also taking out the antimicrobials. It is a fine balancing game. There are probably places where you can use them because you want that flavour there but there are places where you can’t,” she said.

Some meat processors have invested millions into high pressure processing machines to control pathogens. However, McMullen’s research and private companies have found the process destroys the colour pigment in meat so it looks unappetizing.

The private company Nutek Food Services works on a patented process to make potassium chloride a suitable substitute.

Potassium is an electrolyte and key ingredient to help regulate fluid retention, lower blood pressure, and control electrical activity of the heart and muscles. Adding it to foods could be beneficial said Brian Boor.

It has been used worldwide as a substitute for about 40 years but levels had to be held at around 10 percent because higher amounts leave a metallic aftertaste.

However, advanced technologies have been adapted to use potassium chloride as a replacement for sodium chloride at levels of up to 30 to 40 percent.

“What makes removing salt difficult beyond taste is when you pull out salt, the chloride ion does a great deal for shelf life, food safety and water control,” he said.

Companies using potassium chloride are lobbying governments to change nomenclature on labels.

It could be identified as potassium salt, which consumers may find more palatable.

“A lot of people have forgotten ninth grade chemistry. A lot of people think it sounds like something in their swimming pool,” he said.

“Consumers don’t understand chloride so they think it is a chemical and they have no idea why it is in there,” he said.

Many people are not consuming enough potassium, which benefits heart health. Using it as a salt substitute may be another way to ensure people get enough.

“Potassium is skyrocketing in the consumers’ minds as a nutrient of need,” he said.

People are encouraged to eat more whole foods and fewer processed products but the majority goes for convenience and taste. Reformulations with substitutes may be one way to improve nutrition.

“If we do it right, they won’t even know. If we can reformulate what they eat as we try to change what they eat, then we are operating with multiple platforms to get this problem under control,” he said.

Did you know?

  • High sodium consumption of more than two grams per day and insufficient potassium at less than 3.5 grams per day contributes to high blood pressure and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • The main source of sodium in our diet is salt, although it can come from sodium glutamate, used as a condiment in many parts of the world.
  • WHO member states have agreed to reduce the global intake of salt by 30 percent by 2025 for improved health. Key salt reduction measures will generate an extra year of healthy life for a cost that falls below the average annual income or gross domestic product per person.
  • An estimated 2.5 million deaths could be prevented each year if global salt consumption was reduced to the recommended level.

Reduce salt consumption at home by:

  • omitting added salt during food preparation
  • removing the salt shaker from the table
  • limiting the consumption of msalty snacks
  • choosing products with lower sodium content

Source: World Health Organization

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