Food producers are turning to reformulation and salt replacers to voluntarily cut sodium from their products, before it becomes mandatory
Health Canada is serious about salt – reducing the amount consumed by Canadians, that is. Last February, the agency began releasing label data and draft sodium targets for many foods, with more products being added to the list all the time. And in partnership with the food industry, Health Canada is also helping consumers make healthier choices through the launch of the Nutrition Facts Education Campaign.
Brian Nickerson, R&D manager at Oakville, Ont.-based Continental Ingredients Canada, believes that while many companies aren’t happy with such a close look at the salt content of food products, they are accepting that change is here. “The trouble with these targets however,” says Nickerson, “is that the serving sizes in some cases haven’t been updated in 30 years. They’re much too small.”
Although some food companies have already reduced salt in their products – voluntarily complying with targets that may become law in the future – others are still in the early stages. This is partly because from a product development perspective, achieving a good-tasting, lower-salt product is often easier said than done. “Understanding the interaction of all the ingredients in the product is a must, and at times extremely difficult,” explains Nickerson. “Trial and error is often the only way to reformulate many products, a tricky process that can sometimes go on for years.”
Calla Farn agrees that the process is not always easy or straightforward. “In addition to providing flavour, salt can be a functional ingredient,” says the vice-president of Government/Public Relations and Corporate Affairs at Florenceville, N.B.-based McCain Foods Canada. “For example, in baked goods and pizza, salt is used as a leavening agent, while in other products it is used as a preservative to help maintain shelf life. So sometimes we can simply reduce the salt, but often we also have to change spice ratios to make sure the product still tastes as good as, or better than, the original version. Reducing salt can also change the texture of products such as cakes.” McCain Foods does not currently use salt substitutes or flavour enhancers when reducing sodium. In fact, as part of its “McCain It’s All Good” initiative, the company is combining efforts to use no unfamiliar or artificial ingredients with sodium reduction.
The fact that existing salt alternatives may not fill all of the functional roles of salt is recognized in the July 2010 Canada’s Sodium Working Group (SWG) report. The SWG was created in 2007 at the behest of the Health minister to develop and oversee the implementation of a population health strategy for reducing sodium intake among Canadians. “[Replacers] can also be many times the cost of salt,” the report states. “A food processor must identify the role that salt is playing in the food, select from possible options for reducing or replacing it wholly or in part, and test the reformulated product for microbial food safety, shelf life stability and consumer acceptance. It may need to consider the fact that salt substitutes, identified in ingredient lists, are less familiar to consumers. Finally, while food additives are subject to a scientific safety assessment prior to being authorized for use in Canada, there may be limits as to how extensively they can be used because of their particular safety profiles.”