Food and beverage manufacturers are working towards creating healthy-for-you products, including those with reduced or no sodium added ones.
However, it would not be as simple as removing the ingredient from the recipe and package.
Katrine Thordal-Christensen, marketing manager, cheese cultures from Chr. Hansen tells Food News International that manufacturers face issues when reducing sodium in cheese and meat formulation.
FNI: The US Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidance for public comment that provides practical, voluntary sodium reduction targets for the food industry. What are your views on this?
Thordal-Christensen: The voluntary targets of sodium can have a large impact on the public health, if implemented in a variety of products.
Looking at countries like the UK, they have had good success in setting voluntary targets to the industry, resulting in a decrease in sodium intake in the population.
However, it is important to note that the implementation in the UK was supported by industry meetings and commitments from food manufacturers to a shared sodium reduction plan.
FNI: What outcome would you wish to see?
Thordal-Christensen: Reformulation of food products such as cheese and meat is a process that needs to be done thoroughly and with a high level of expertise.
Sodium reduction is a fundamental change in production and in recipes and Chr. Hansen hopes the industry can come together to unlock the code to reformulation so this change is driven by sustainable innovation and natural products.
Sodium has many functions in a cheese and Chr. Hansen hopes reformulation of these products will be done with natural ingredients that enable the product to maintain a clean label.
FNI: How ready is the US food industry to offering reduced sodium versions of existing products?
Thordal-Christensen: Reducing sodium in significant amounts can only be done through innovation.
Sodium in cheese and meat products is added as a preservative and functional ingredient to support quality and flavor.
When sodium is reduced, it is essential to supplement the food product with other ingredients and, in some cases, implement changes in the production process in order to avoid compromises on product quality of the food product.
Reformulation recipes to some food groups including cheese have been investigated by dairy scientists for years and a solution is thereby available.
However, reformulating all cheese and meat product recipes with a short term perspective is unrealistic as this is a time consuming process.
Extending the product range with sodium reduced varieties is realistic and would be a good start in the short term.
This would also enable dairies to become comfortable working with other ingredients than higher levels of sodium.
FNI: Would this lead to a ‘salt-tax’?
Thordal-Christensen: Implementing ‘salt-tax’ can result in compromised product quality.
The time period for reformulation needs to be recognized.
Further, salt is a cheap ingredient and the optimal target to reduce sodium with natural ingredients to maintain a clean product label.
A salt-tax may result in food producers being more likely to replace sodium with products that require labeling.
This would contradict the main target to make food products healthier.
FNI: How prevalent is the demand for reduced sodium food in markets outside the US?
Thordal-Christensen: The World Health Organisation has been focused on salt reduction since 2006 and with the target to reduce salt intake by 30% by 2025 in the member states, reformulation is a key topic in the food industry.
The driving markets to reduce sodium in cheese are, among others, the UK, who first started in 2001 and indicate salt levels on their traffic light on consumer packaging, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Spain and Greece.
Other countries such as Denmark are following with the introduction of the ‘keyhole’ label on consumer packaging that sets maximum levels on ingredients such as the sodium content.
Turkey is the most recent country to focus on sodium intake in food products including cheese which has been done by the introduction of maximum sodium levels.
The average consumer in Turkey consumes up to 18 g of salt per day.
Turkey thereby represents one of the highest sodium consuming markets globally.
FNI: How has the food industry been catering to the demand for reduced sodium food?
Thordal-Christensen: Pockets of success stories appear on sodium reduction, but in general the food industry has not taken an active approach to reduce sodium levels.
One of the success stories is sodium reduction in bread in the UK.
Bread is the main contributor to sodium intake in western countries and from 2009 to 2013, the UK has reduced sodium levels in bread by 10%.
Cheese is the third largest contributor to sodium intake but less focus has been on this food category due to its complex matrix.
Within recent years much research and innovation has been undergone and a solution to sodium reduction is now readily available.
The first products with reformulations are appearing on the market such as Greek Feta and Gouda cheeses.
Reducing salt in cheese can be done but reformulation must be done carefully to avoid compromising food quality and safety.
FNI: What opportunities could you anticipate with reduced sodium product offerings?
Thordal-Christensen: Food products reduced by a minimum of 25% from the standard recipe can be labeled with the claim ‘reduced salt/sodium’ and thereby offer a point of differentiation at point of sale.
In conjunction with an awareness campaign on the benefits of sodium and consequences of excess amounts consumed, food manufacturers could introduce a new product to their range.
Chr. Hansen’s core product offering is lactic acid bacteria to the food industry.
Within cheese production, the company supplies two out of the four ingredients needed to make cheese, namely the lactic acid bacteria and coagulant.
Its R&D department has been working to develop a solution to sodium reduction in cheese without compromising on quality.
The result is the SaltLite solution launched in 2012.
Most recent innovation at Chr. Hansen is its bioprotection range, reducing the growth of unwanted bacteria such as yeast and mold.
This range revolutionizes the possibilities of sodium reduction beyond cheese and is increasing its presence in meat products to maintain high quality to the end of shelf life.
FNI: What can F&B manufacturers do to capitalize on this consumer demand for reduced sodium foods?
Thordal-Christensen: The awareness and level of knowledge at consumers is at an intermediate level.
In order for consumers to understand the impact of excess sodium intake on the human body, education is needed.
Food manufacturers are strong influencers in setting new trends and have the power to inform retailers and the industry of new innovation initiatives.
In order to capitalize on the demand for sodium-reduced products, it is recommended to build trust through close collaboration with human health experts on the development of an awareness campaign.
FNI: Which sectors/providers would benefit most from this trend?
Thordal-Christensen: Reducing sodium is a contributing factor to reducing blood pressure and diseases related to high blood pressure.
The collaboration between food manufacturers, health experts and the government to reduce sodium intake in the general population will benefit all three parties.
Consumers will be healthier, and there will also be a positive impact on healthcare costs.
Lastly, this trend offers food manufacturers the opportunity to differentiate their offerings by introducing ‘reduced in sodium’ (if reduced by a minimum of 25%) ingredients with profitable, premium pricing.