Unilever joins sodium reduction efforts

by Jeff Gelski
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Goals announced by Unilever on April 21 represent the latest push for reduced sodium in processed foods and beverages. The company is seeking to reduce the salt content of its products by the end of 2010 to help people reach the daily recommended dietary intake of 6 grams of salt (2,400 mg of sodium) per person. A further reduction, which Unilever hopes to reach by the end of 2015, would help limit daily salt intake to 5 grams (2,000 mg of sodium) per person.

In March, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and the Institute of Medicine, Washington, weighed in on sodium reduction.

Unilever will attempt to reduce the salt content of most everything in its food portfolio, which includes an estimated 22,000 products.

"Promoting a lower salt intake fits in with Unilever’s Vitality mission," said Gaby Vreeken, vice-president of marketing at Unilever Benelux. "It is an ambitious plan, but it can be done and really must bedone. The challenge lies in achieving these results without compromising on flavor, quality, and shelf life of products.

"Approximately 75% of total salt intake comes from processed foods such as bread, cheese, meat, sauces and soups. Consumers will be more likely to adapt their taste preference to lower levels of salt if the food industry as a whole reduces salt levels."

Unilever will examine how often consumers eat certain products, said Gert Meijer, vice-president of nutrition and health for Unilever. For example, since soup accounts for 10% of salt intake, Unilever soups will need to contain no more than an average of 360 mg of sodium per 100 grams to help consumers stay under 6 grams of salt per day.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say adults in general should eat less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.

According to a study released March 26 by the C.D.C., more than two of three adults are in population groups that should consume no more than 1,500 mg per day of sodium. The groups include people with high-blood pressure, blacks and people more than 40 years old. The C.D.C. study used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and appeared in the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The study showed the average intake of sodium for persons in the United States age 2 and older was 3,436 mg per day.

The Institute of Medicine has convened an ad hoc consensus committee to review and make recommendations about various ways to reduce sodium intake to levels recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The I.O.M. held an open session on sodium strategies March 30 in Washington.

Dr. Corinne Vaughan, deputy head of nutrition for the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency, spoke at the event and said the F.S.A. has a strategic target of reducing average population salt intake to 6 grams by 2010.

Nestle, Vevey, Switzerland, has had an official policy in place since 2005, said Dr. Edward Fern, Ph.D., head of corporate nutrition for Nestle, when he spoke at the I.O.M. event. Products with a sodium content greater than 100 mg must reduce that level by a total of 25% in five years or until the level of 100 mg has been reached.

The Salt Institute, Alexandria, Va., has challenged the science behind some of the reasons to reduce salt consumption. Dr. Morton Satin, Ph.D., director of technical and regulatory affairs for the Salt Institute, addressed a letter to the I.O.M. dated March 30.

"I have come into this salt and health debate very late and am astonished at the degree to which personality and politics have dominated over what should have been a comprehensive and dispassionate consideration of all the science relating to salt and health and the potential impact of a population-wide reduction in salt consumption," he wrote. "While no one doubts that a certain proportion of our population may experience modest blood pressure declines from salt reduction, it has by no means been scientifically established that a population-wide reduction will benefit overall health outcomes."

He pointed to a meta-analysis carried out in 2003 and again in 2008 by The Cochrane Collaboration that indicates no significant benefit for overall health outcomes.

Mike Nugent, vice-president of scoring for NuVal, L.L.C., Braintree, Mass., spoke March 26 about sodium content at "Wellness 09: At the Forefront of Food & Health," an event in Rosemont, Ill., sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists. The NuVal Nutritional Scoring System evaluates nutritional criteria and assigns products a number from 1 to 100 with higher numbers representing more nutritional products.

Sodium may affect a product negatively in the NuVal scoring system, Mr. Nugent said. For example, he said a 20-calorie item of green beans and water would score a perfect 100 but adding 390 mg of sodium to the product would drop the score to 57. FBNKeep flavor, enhance product image while reducing sodium

Salt replacements may cost more

Amid the rising tide of sodium-reduction efforts, two strategies are cresting. One involves finding suitable taste substitutes for salt. The other involves riding the wave of favorable public opinion by switching regular salt for sea salt. Since both strategies may cost more economic concerns come into play.

"You are trying to replace something that costs like 6c a lb," said Fred Pucarelli, manager of analytic sciences for Takasago International Corp. (USA), Rockleigh, N.J. "Salt is cheap. New technology usually isn’t."

Sodium-reduction strategies will depend on such variables as processing details and application categories, which may include confectionery, beverage or savory, said Carter Green, director of science and technology for Takasago International Corp. (USA).

"There isn’t a magic flavor on the shelf that will work in all applications," he said.

Companies should take a multilayered approach and consider several tools, including potassium chloride, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and hydrolyzed vegetable protein, he said.

"All those things are part of the toolbox," Mr. Green said.

Ingredient companies are tinkering with the toolbox, too.

Givaudan Flavours, Dubendorf, Switzerland, as part of its TasteSolutions program, has developed a portfolio of building blocks and ingredients that will help its flavorists enhance salt perception in low-sodium applications. The applications may be free of allergens and MSG. Givaudan’s technology allows the company to develop flavors that do not rely on potassium chloride if customers seek that option.

Bell Flavors and Fragrances, Inc., Northbrook, Ill., has made ReduxSo, a sodium-reduction technology, available to the processed foods industry. ReduxSo, a line of flavor systems designed to mimic the sensation sodium chloride delivers, may reduce sodium content by up to 50%. The flavor systems are designed for use in meats, snacks, condiments and soups.

Kikkoman Ponzu Citrus Seasoned Dressing is scheduled for distribution in 2009, said Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing manager, Foodservice & Industrial, Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco.

"This seasoned soy sauce contains a splash of citrus flavor, offering umami-enhancing benefits to virtually any savory dish," she said. "This bright, tangy citrus flavor makes it easy to add umami while reducing sodium in all kinds of cuisines."

The Salt Institute, Alexandria, Va., questions whether ingredients used to replace salt will make a product healthier.

Morton Satin, director of technical and regulatory affairs for the Salt Institute, wrote in a March 30 letter addressed to the Institute of Medicine: "The very concept of replacing salt with an arsenal of synthetic chemical products that have never been tested for their interaction and toxicities at the levels they are projected to be consumed at, if they replace salt, is highly questionable."

Sea salt may give a product a healthier image among consumers. According to a Cargill Salt study, 80% of home meal preparers are aware of sea salt and almost half use sea salt in their home cooking. The Innova New Product Database showed that more than 800 new products containing sea salt were introduced in 2007, a 16% increase from 2006.

Cargill Salt launched its Sea Salt Grinder in June of 2008. Carlos Rodriguez, marketing manager with Cargill Salt, gave an example of a sea salt truffle in which the sea salt may soften the bitter flavors of dark chocolate and thus enhance flavor.

Hirzel Canning Co. & Farms, Toledo, Ohio, has followed both strategies, using flavorful replacements and sea salt, in its Dei Fratelli brand of tomato products, said Steve Hirzel, president. The company recently changed its packaging to promote low-sodium content in such items as crushed tomatoes and tomato puree.

About 25 years ago Hirzel Canning Co. & Farms decided to rely more on spices and herbs like basil and oregano and less on salt. Sodium content generally ranges from 200 mg to 250 mg per serving in the company’s sauces, Mr. Hirzel said. Sodium content in the juices is about 450 mg since spices do not work as well in juices. The spices and herbs cost more than salt and create a higher quality product, Mr. Hirzel said.

Hirzel Canning Co. & Farms made a conscious effort a couple years ago to use only sea salt instead of regular salt in its Dei Fratelli brand of

products, Mr. Hirzel said. The company noticed consumers, especially those interested in organic and natural items, appeared to believe sea salt was better for them.

"We don’t make any claims like that," he said.

Reduce sodium in baked foods

Several ingredient suppliers offer ways to reduce sodium in baked foods:

• Fleischmann’s Yeast, Chesterfield, Mo., introduced AB Mauri Low Sodium and AB Mauri Sodium Free Baking Powder options earlier this year for use in such applications as cakes, cookies, crackers and tortillas.  The low-sodium product may reduce the amount of sodium by nearly 50% and increase the amount of calcium by more than 500%. The sodium-free product may reduce the amount of sodium by nearly 100%.

• ICL Performance Products offers its sodium-free and calcium-rich Levona family of leavening acids. They may reduce sodium content by as much as 25%, said Barbara Heidolph, principal with St. Louis-based ICL. Two leavening acids are available. Opus provides a slow and delayed leavening action that is ideal for frozen and refrigerated products. The acid’s reaction profile is similar to sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP) RD. Levona Brio, a faster grade of leavening acid, delivers carbon dioxide early in the baking process and is suitable for the production of cakes, biscuits, muffins, tortillas and baking powders.

• Innophos offers calcium-based, sodium-free Cal-Rise. It may provide for a health claim of "reduced sodium" or "low sodium" depending on formulation along with providing for a health claim of "good" or "excellent" source of calcium, depending on formulation. Cal-Rise may be used as a direct replacement for sodium-based leavenings such as SAPP 28. Breakfast foods, driven by school lunch programs for healthier products with lower sodium levels, are leading the way in reduced-sodium baked foods, said John Brodie, technical service baking manager for Innophos, Cranbury, N.J.

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