Bakers seek study of incremental sodium cuts in bread

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — Finding ways to encourage incremental cuts in the sodium content of bread was among steps encouraged in testimony by Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of government relations and public affairs for the American Bakers Association.

Speaking Nov. 29 in Washington at a Food and Drug Administration public hearing on salt and sodium, Ms. Sanders said little incentive exists currently for bakers and others to reformulate their products.

"A 25% reduction to meet the reduced-sodium health claim requirement would dramatically impact flavor, as well as mixing, and handling of the dough," Ms. Sanders said.

She warned the F.D.A. that it is likely that consumers would reject such a sharp reduction in salt content because of the adverse effects such a move would have on bread flavor.

"A.B.A. encourages F.D.A. to work with industry to develop a policy open to greater claim flexibility for reduced-sodium products moving forward to encourage manufacturers to consider small, incremental decreases over a longer period of time and consider potential ways manufacturers could successfully communicate these changes."

She said such incremental change will be discussed at the next meeting of the Food Technical Regulatory Affairs Committee in 2008.

Ms. Sanders laid out for the committee the many reasons salt is used in bread. In whole grain bread, the presence of salt helps mask the bitter flavor of whole grains. More generally, salt is needed both for bread quality and flavor.

"It enhances flavor, crust color, improves crumb structure, prevents excessive yeast action and inhibits acid producing bacteria," Ms. Sanders said. "The technical effects of salt in bread are due primarily to change in the dough extensibility. Salt mellows the gluten and softens the dough, making it easier to mix and less resistant to sheeting and molding operations. This results in lighter texture in the final baked good. Commercial bakeries would have difficulty in producing bread without salt."

Regarding flavor, Ms. Sanders said bread would taste bland and bitter without salt.

Despite this importance, bakers have been able to significantly lower the sodium content of bread since the 1960s. Citing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the A.B.A. said sodium content in white bread in 2007 was 180 mg per slice, down 29% from 254 mg in 1963.

"A.B.A. members continue to assess whether further sodium reduction may be possible," Ms. Sanders said. "Based on current information, however, it appears likely that consumer acceptance may suffer if sodium is cut further from bread products."

Turning to potential substitutes, Ms. Sanders said potassium chloride has been used in cases where sodium must be restricted, but she described the flavor and aftertaste as "terrible and lingering."

"Because of the lack of good viable sodium replacers in commercial bread, there are not any reduced-salt breads produced on a large scale in the current marketplace," she said. "Salt-free or low-salt bread tastes bland and is not acceptable to consumers; there is simply no marketplace demand for such a product."

Processed foods have been fingered as a principal source of sodium in the American diet, and Ms. Sanders took issue with the particular focus on bread as a major source of sodium.

"Bread is not a high-sodium food, and each individual eating occasion would provide minimum sodium to consumers," she said. "It should be noted the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommendation of 5 to 10 one ounce grain equivalents per day, does encourage frequency of consumption of grain-based foods, but this should be put into perspective within the overall health benefit provided by both enriched and whole grain products that are the basis for a healthy daily diet."

Grain-based foods account for between 35% and 40% of sodium intake, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Education Examination Survey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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