Reformulations are offering significant opportunities for innovation with alternative ingredients, but whether such reformulations may impact food on a microbial level has not been extensively studied, wrote Roy Sleator and Colin Hill from University College Cork in the journal Medical Hypotheses.
"Despite considerable research into the effects of alternative food formulations on nutrition and human health, the indirect consequences of product reformulation on the growth of food spoilage and pathogenic bacteria has remained largely undetermined," they said.
Salt and sugar play a role above and beyond merely improving the organoleptic qualities of foods, said Sleator and Hill, and both have traditionally been used as preservatives by reducing the availability of water and thereby inhibiting the growth of bacteria associated with food spoilage and food poisoning.
"Replacing these compounds with alternative (often less bacteriostatic) agents therefore has the potential to cause serious food poisoning outbreaks," they said.
To illustrate their point, the authors highlight the replacement of sugar with the artificial sweetener aspartame in hazelnut yoghurt in 1990 that resulted in the largest recorded outbreak of food-borne botulism in the United Kingdom due to excessive growth Clostridium botulinum.
"There is little information in the literature on the effects of product reformulation on the growth of pathogenic bacteria in foods prior to ingestion and subsequently within the human host," they added.
"Given the potential risks associated with reformulation, a definitive risk-benefit analysis of dietary reformulations for enhanced health versus microbiological safety is required.
"In line with this hypothesis is the suggestion that far more detailed information on the potential of substituted ingredients to interfere with hurdle technology is essential to the continued development and safe innovation of the sector," they concluded.
Numerous scientists are convinced that high salt intake is responsible for increasing blood pressure (hypertension), a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) - a disease that causes almost 50 per cent of deaths in Europe.
CVD is reported to cost the EU economy an estimated € 169bn ($202bn) per year.
In the UK, Ireland and the USA, over 80 per cent of salt intake comes from processed food, with 20 per cent of salt intake coming from meat and meat products, and about 35 per cent from cereal and cereal products. Reduction of salt in these products represents a major technological and safety challenge to producers.
Scientists from Finland recently claimed that increased salt intake may have played an important role in the development of obesity, with the increased thirst associated with salty food intake leading to an increase in the consumption of soft drinks, and thereby an increase in energy intake.
Over 300m adults are obese worldwide, according to latest statistics from the WHO and the International Obesity Task Force. About one-quarter of the US adult population is said to be obese, with rates in Western Europe on the rise although not yet at similar levels.
Source: Medical Hypotheses (Elsevier)
Published on-line ahead of print, doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2007.03.007
"Food reformulations for improved health: a potential risk for microbial food safety?"
Authors: R.D. Sleator, C. Hill