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Bakers on sodium reduction: We can’t afford to make products consumers won’t buy

By Elaine Watson, 02-Feb-2012

Related topics: Cereals and bakery preparations, Flavors and colors, Sodium reduction, Food labeling and marketing, Markets

Reducing sodium is expensive and difficult, and many bakers are beginning to wonder whether it is worth investing millions into reformulating products that consumers do not want to buy, according to the Association of Bakers (ABA).

In a comment just submitted to the government's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), as part of its probe into sodium reduction approaches , the ABA said: “There is no evidence that lower sodium baked goods are in greater demand."

In fact, said the ABA, "We have observed the opposite… Companies cannot afford to continue to commit resources to develop products that consumers refuse to buy.”

It went on to cite the example of an unnamed baker which cut sodium by 25% from 700mg per 100g to 525mg/100g, and saw sales slide “almost immediately”, even though the reduction had not been flagged up on the label.

Where’s the return on investment?

And given that low sodium was not a selling point with many consumers (many firms are now making 'stealth' reductions to avoid antagonizing shoppers) it was hard to make any return on investment in costlier ingredients, recipe development, sensory testing and changes to manufacturing processes, said the ABA.

Given the low cost of salt and other sodium-based leavening acids, it is difficult to find the positive financial incentives to make the changes, particularly in light of the many negative side effects on taste, flavor and texture.”

ABA senior vice president, government relations & public affairs Lee Sanders, told FoodNavigator-USA: “The bottom line is that bakers want to be responsive to consumer preferences and tastes.

“If consumers do not like the lower sodium products and they sit on the shelf at the supermarket, then companies will need to make practical, bottom line decisions.”

She added: In some products, bakers have lowered sodium and the public did not accept the newly formulated product, so sodium was reintroduced.”

Government actions must be based on solid science

Meanwhile, many food manufacturers were beginning to question whether government sodium targets were based on sound science, added Sanders, who urged regulators to review emerging scientific evidence challenging the prevailing hypothesis that cutting sodium – ideally to 1,500mg/day – can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

ABA strongly requests that FDA and FSIS along with other agencies proposing sodium limits conduct a thorough review of the emerging evidence describing the potential unintended consequences of reducing sodium intake…

“Setting sweeping national policy without incorporating, analyzing and addressing significant new research would be irresponsible and is extremely concerning … Government actions should be grounded in solid scientific-based research.”

She added: “Insufficient physical activity and dietary fat remain as the main causes of heart disease rather than excess salt”.

Incremental reductions

Bakers had nevertheless made significant reductions in sodium in recent years, with USDA data showing that the average sodium level in a slice of white bread had dropped from 254mg in 1963 to 180mg in 2007, while an ABA survey revealed a 6% sodium reduction in bread and a 4% reduction in cakes/cookies between May 2010 and November 2011, claimed Sanders.

Asked what level of reduction was reasonable, she said: “There is no consensus on a sodium target in breads, however the UK target of 400mg per 100g of product is a reasonable and achievable target, in fact many breads in the market today are at or near this value.”

Emerging science

According to the Salt Institute, the sodium targets in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (<1,500mg for those aged 51+, African Americans, plus anyone with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, and< 2,300mg for everyone else) originated from a 2004 Institute of Medicine report , which had made recommendations about DRIs despite acknowledging that it lacked the data to develop RDAs for sodium.

It said: “Rather than thoroughly assessing the latest scientific and medical knowledge on sodium, the agencies reached a conclusion in 2005 based on insufficient evidence and then repeated the error in 2010."

It also claimed government agencies had willfully ignored new research such as a Cochrane review published in the American Journal of Hypertension , which concluded that “cutting down on the amount of salt has no clear benefits in terms of likelihood of dying or experiencing cardiovascular disease”.

Dr Penny Kris-Etherton: ‘Persuasive evidence that population-wide sodium reduction is needed to prevent cardiovascular disease, stroke, and kidney disease.’

However, many commentators filing remarks in the FSIS docket said the government should be far tougher on the food industry.

One such is National Lipid Association president Dr Penny Kris-Etherton, who noted: “Since approximately 77% of the sodium in the US diet comes from salt used in the manufacture or preparation of foods, consumer education strategies alone are likely not sufficient to attain sodium intake goals.”

She added: “Persuasive evidence supports that a population-wide sodium reduction is needed to prevent cardiovascular disease, stroke, and kidney disease.

“We strongly urge FDA and USDA to revise and update the sodium provisions for nutrition labeling, related sodium claims, and disclosure or disqualifying criteria for sodium in foods, including a revision to base the daily value for sodium on the adequate intake (1,500 mg/day).”