Salt reduction on the industry agenda

Posted by Isobel Drake on 21st July 2008

Salt reduction has been a key issue in recent years, with the creation of the World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) group which seeks to lower intake worldwide. Already the UK has witnessed a rapid decline in the salt content of their foods due to work by the Food Standards Agency in conjunction with the food industry and it now appears the US will follow suit.
The National Restaurant Association recently brought the food industry together at the “Nutrient Essentials: Sodium and the Healthy Plate” conference to examine the issue. Speakers and attendees discussed challenges and opportunities in reducing sodium without affecting taste and quality of food items and consumer expectations and acceptance. Shaping America’s Health (SAH) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association were partners in organizing the conference.

“We are pleased that our Nutrient Essentials conference was such a success, and that our industry is taking a proactive approach to reducing sodium in food and beverage products,” said Dawn Sweeney, President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. “As with many nutrition issues, sodium cannot be addressed in a vacuum, but must be looked at in the context of the entire supply chain as well as overall diet and health.”

SAH, a nonprofit group dedicated to reducing obesity rates, was delighted to join with the National Restaurant Association, believing it to be a step in the right direction. “Shaping America’s Health is energized by the Nutrient Essentials Conference, our first collaborative effort with the National Restaurant Association,” reported Jim Hill, PhD, Chair Shaping America’s Health and Professor of Pediatrics & Medicine, University of Colorado. “We believe in the power of small steps leading to significant change and we are excited about the opportunity to work along with the National Restaurant Association in addressing the nutrition and health needs of children and families.”Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, believes the difficult task of reducing salt intake will require input from a wide range of parties. “This conference, along with GMA’s October 2007 salt conference, continues the important dialogue to address salt and sodium, and underscores the critical discourse required among the food and restaurant industry, government, consumer advocates, and health and culinary professionals for long-term success in helping consumers meet the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation of 2,300 mg sodium per day or less,” he said.

Conference sessions provided background and scientific information on salt and sodium by health and medical professionals. Public policy and regulatory issues were addressed by government officials – including representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Representatives from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene challenged the industry to further explore ways to reduce sodium levels in products to avoid regulating against them.

Consumer experts addressed how the general public views nutrition messages on sodium, including research that labels like “low-sodium” and “reduced sodium” may be a deterrent as that message has long been considered equal to lack of taste.

General discussions centered on the progress the food and restaurant industry has already made or is making to reduce salt and sodium. Challenges identified include consumer acceptance of lower-sodium alternatives in general and in specific items they are used to tasting a certain way; and that sodium is a required ingredient in certain food items (such as cheese) that can make reductions more complicated.

Best practices presented during the conference highlighted that the preferred way to reduce sodium levels in food items is to do so gradually, as to not suddenly alter flavor profiles. Agreement was also reached that there is an immediate need for consumer education on the issue of sodium, and that emphasis needs to be placed on overall health and diet rather than single nutrients to improve public health.

In addition, culinary events at the conference highlighted how to create flavorful, low-sodium dishes with flavor alternatives, such as herbs, spices, vinegar and other acids. Umami – the “fifth taste” – was also explored as an alternative. Described as “savory” and “hearty” and found in foods such as meats, mushrooms and cheese, umami has long been recognized in Asia and is now making its way into the Western culinary world.