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Lack of ‘Magic Ingredient’ for Sodium Reformulation Necessitates a Partnership Approach to Retaining Shelf Life in Foods

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With the spotlight on health improvement initiatives to reduce sodium, sugar and fat in packaged food, global attention is turning towards the ways and means food manufacturers can reformulate and position their products. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) established targets aim for a 30% reduction in global salt consumption by 2025, whereby countries try to reduce national salt consumption to 5g per person per day. Reformulation attempts to achieve the Responsibility Deal (UK) or National Salt Reduction Initiative (US) targets are based on industry partnerships between individual food manufacturers and the respective government health departments.

Retail Value Size and Growth of Better-For-You (BFY) Reduced Salt Packaged Foods by Region (2008-2012)

Retail Value Size and Growth of Better for You Reduced Salt Packaged Foods by Region

Source: Euromonitor International

Crucially, to maintain taste, the removal of sodium must be done gradually to allow the palate to be realigned and prevent product rejection. However, to aid fermentation and maintain shelf life, it still appears necessary to keep adding salt to food as there are few alternative ingredients currently available in the market. Successful sodium reduction will therefore depend on the ultimate objective of the manufacturer, and so, with a wide array of available ingredients and limited budgets, food companies must pick the right ingredients manufacturer as a partner to help them achieve their reformulation efforts.

For each company, even for something like reducing sodium, setting clear goals and measurable targets can help in achieving progress as it is all too easy to change focus, particularly without any tangible financial incentive. All sodium removal from foods will help save lives through preventing strokes and heart attacks (CVD) but, looking at the salt removed in the last 12 years and also the path ahead, it would appear to be something of a challenge to meet the WHO’s 2025 targets. This is true even for the UK, which reports variable progress among manufacturers but also the lowest salt consumption in Europe in 2013. Special focus areas include those individual foods perceived as salty within bread, ready meals, meat products and cheese, among others.

Breaking barriers to communication helps reformulation progress

In reformulation partnerships, clear and open dialogue must take place between manufacturers and the health department or trade body so problems can be addressed or efforts recognised by the target setting organisation. Potentially, a reformulation problem faced by one particular manufacturer has already been solved by another. Any single manufacturer may not have a bird’s eye view of how best to resolve the issue, and this is where the government liaison body can help.

Each country has separate systems for sodium reduction, further reflecting the variable progress made in reformulation. Globally, at just below a 10% CAGR, sales of better-for-you (BFY) reduced salt products have outpaced the 2% achieved by the more mature BFY reduced sugar category since 2008. Reflecting the urgency of the issue, Western European initiatives have largely driven global growth in BFY reduced salt products over the last five years.

Interest from nascent markets in Eastern Europe and also Latin America is certainly increasing, primarily due to strong initiatives in Brazil and Argentina. Consequentially, a total of 29 Western European member states (including Norway and Finland) have salt reduction policies in place in 2013, and many have set baseline sodium consumption levels. The acclaimed UK reformulation partnership system has been adopted by Finland, Canada and Australia, among others.

How are reformulated products to be marketed?

At present, marketing reduced sodium products is a vague area. Some are marketed and some are not. Increasingly, reduced sodium products are marketed indirectly to prevent the consumer having to make a conscious decision to remove salt from their diet. While Euromonitor International covers the entire packaged food market, this preference removes indirectly reformulated reduced sodium products from our coverage as only those explicitly positioned as ‘low sodium’ or ‘reduced sodium’ are tracked in our research. This indicates that actual retail value sales of BFY reduced sodium products are actually much higher than our figures suggest.

An interesting diversion is that some countries such as Spain and the Netherlands are moving towards marketing reduced sodium while others like the UK are moving away from it. This may reflect differences in consumer acceptance of reduced sodium products between countries, but suggests that with the right consumer education, direct marketing of products positioned with a reduced sodium content may be possible.

Multiple ingredient choices signifies need for key reformulation partners

This marketing problem partly occurs because sodium reformulation efforts are strongly challenged by the lack of a single available ingredient. In contrast, there is a stark difference within the BFY reduced sugar space. There, stevia takes prime marketing prominence, and will be followed by monk fruit in coming years, with its different functionality. Both ingredients thrive on their natural, zero-calorie credentials in the overall market. However, the necessity for manufacturers to use a range of ingredients and technologies in reducing sodium further illustrates the complex nature of this market and highlights achievements already made, where as much as 40% sodium has already been removed from some food products.

Globally, sales of BFY reduced salt packaged food have doubled since 2003, and were valued in 2012 at US$4.75 billion. As initiatives become established in more countries, market development should accelerate. The largest increases in sodium consumption have been seen in China and India, where sodium reduction initiatives have not yet been established, and therefore these and other emerging countries represent strong prospects for the future.

Read more about sodium reduction here: Sodium Reduction Challenges in Bakery: Are my Bread or Croissants Healthier?

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