We take more than a pinch of salt

Arena Food & Health: The atmosphere at Nofima’s Salt Day was one of consensus and determination. Everyone – researchers, health authorities, and industry representatives alike – agreed that the per capita salt intake is far too high, and that collaboration is needed to bring about the necessary changes.

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Portrettbilde av Ida Synnøve Bårvåg Grini

Processed food and restaurant food are responsible for 77 per cent of our salt intake, while 11 per cent is added at home. The remaining 12 per cent is found naturally in the foodstuffs.

Only smoking is more harmful than high salt intake
“Too much salt leads to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is the leading cause of cardiovascular disorders,” said Professor Sverre Kjeldsen at Oslo University Hospital. “Mortality rates related to high blood pressure are actually twice as high as for being overweight or obese.”

Studies where people with high blood pressure have followed low-salt diets show that improvements come quickly, and the less salt the diets contain, the more the blood pressure decreases.

According to Lars Johansson from the Norwegian Directorate of Health, a reduction of 5 grams of salt per person per day reduces the risk of stroke by 23 per cent and cardiovascular diseases by 17 per cent.

“A decrease in salt intake would therefore result in huge economic savings,” Johansson points out. “Each gram less of salt intake results in an annual saving per invested dollar of 15–26 dollars. The challenge is, however, that the investments must be done by the industry, while the savings are in the form of lower health costs. This is an important incentive for creating awareness of the effects of preventive work – and for rewarding such work.”

Look to Finland
The body needs salt, but far less than what it ingests. While the body needs around 0.5–1 gram of salt per day, the daily salt intake in Norway and Europe is around 9–12 grams. The ambition is to cut this amount in half in the coming decades, while the long-term goal is 3 grams.

But achieving such a reduction requires more than a change in mind-set. This is seen not least from results from the US, where salt intake is at the same level as 40 years ago despite a host of large-scale public awareness campaigns.

Two countries that have succeeded are the UK and above all Finland. Through regulations and collaborations between research groups, health authorities, and the food industry, they have managed to reduce salt intake by 40 per cent over a 40-year period from 1977 to 2007. In the UK, the key measure has been to collaborate with the food and restaurant sector to reduce salt content in food and increase public awareness. This has resulted in a decline of 9.5 per cent (from 9.5 grams/day to 8.6 grams/day) for the period 2000–2008.

“Nofima wants to play a leading role here as the nexus between the industry, research groups, and the authorities,” says Ida Synnøve Grini, Advisor at Nofima’s Food & Health Section. “If so desired, we would gladly arrange a meeting where the industry, health authorities, and researchers can meet to brainstorm ideas for helping Norway achieve its target of reducing its per capita salt intake to 5 grams per day.”

Important with more research on measures to reduce salt
Several Norwegian companies have already successfully reduced the salt content in their food products, and there is a great determination to do further work on the salt problem. Major Norwegian food companies and research institutes have therefore collaborated on applying for support for the research project “Salt Reduction through Process and Product Optimization in the Food Industry”.

“The experiences from the Salt Network, which Nofima organized last year under the auspices of Innovation Norway, show that the industry is firmly committed to developing low-salt and healthy products,” says Ida Synnøve Grini

Toro and Mills are two Norwegian companies that have had salt reduction on the agenda for several years, and their experiences prove this to be a wise strategy. Mills’ low-salt bread Vita Hjertego has been named Norway’s healthiest and best bread. Toro has reduced the salt content in its soups by 30–40 per cent since the 1980s. A remaining challenge, however, is to increase consumer knowledge on salt content in ready-made food.

A Synovate poll from March 2010 shows that Norwegians believe that ready-made food contains far too much salt. 77 per cent of the respondents in Synovate’s survey of Norwegian eating habits also reply that they do not want to eat too much salt, placing salt in a tie for second place among components that Norwegians do not wish to eat. Salt shares this undesirable place with soft drinks, with only sugar ahead of them.

Image and bad taste – the greatest challenges for salt substitutes
The salt in the food can be reduced in two ways: by adding less salt and by substituting the salt with other components that compensate for the absence of salt, so-called salt substitutes. Experiences show that a natural salt reduction of 20–30 per cent is possible in many food products, but that salt substitutes are needed in order to achieve greater reductions.

“There is still much research that remains to be done concerning salt substitutes, in regard to both food and nutrition and to consumer perceptions,” Ida Synnøve Grini points out.

There are several groups of salt substitutes, and an important question is which ones are the best and how do the consumers perceive these components. Researcher Kjell Josefsen at Sintef has led the work on surveying the various salt substitutes and their effects on health. It turns out that there are significant differences in how much salt can be replaced by the various substitutes without affecting above all the taste. But there is no doubt that if used correctly, salt substitutes will lead to a healthier populace.

According to Josefsen, the most relevant option is to replace salt with potassium chloride, and this is also the most commonly used salt substitute, but because of poor taste qualities, only a small percentage of the salt is replaced with potassium chloride. Other potential salt substitutes are amino acids, with glutamate being important in this context. From the perspective of health and taste, glutamate is a good alternative, but widespread scepticism among consumers makes it a risky enterprise to use glutamate. Toro has for example removed glutamate from its products.

The alternative to glutamate is other amino acids and 5′-nucloetides, but it remains to be seen whether these will suffer the same fate in the marketplace as glutamate. From a marketing perspective, it might be preferable with yeast extract, vegetable juice concentrates, herb and spice extracts, and so forth.

“It is important that salt substitutes aren’t profiled as something ‘artificial’ in comparison to ‘natural’ salt. Perhaps we should find another name?” Josefsen asks rhetorically, before concluding nonetheless that the greatest challenge is to create good products with less salt.

Food and health   Raw materials and process optimisation  

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