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Sodium Reduction Challenges in Bakery: Are my Bread or Croissants Healthier?

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With salt consumption levels in Western Europe standing at around 8-12g per day, currently twice the recommended level for a healthy diet, and links having been established between increased salt consumption, raised blood pressure and cardiovascular disease or CVD (WHO Statistics 2012, WHO Global Brief on Hypertension 2008), various countries are making extensive efforts to raise consumer awareness and reduce salt and sodium intakes at population level. In 2013, CVD remains the leading cause of death globally.

By means of voluntary industry/government partnerships, under the Responsibility Deal Initiative, the UK is at the forefront in efforts to reduce sodium consumption, an important component in salt. Across all foods, daily salt consumption in the UK has so far been lowered by 1g, from 9.6g to 8.6g per day, with the UK thought to have the lowest salt consumption in Western Europe (UK Department of Health, WHO). Progressive targets were established for participating companies in 2010 and again in 2012, with the objective of reducing sodium use. In 2013, these targets will be revised and lowered to maintain momentum in terms of reformulation.

Savoury products are among the most challenging when it comes to reducing sodium content. Firstly, by decreasing the amount of sodium in what may not be perceived as a ‘salty’ product, consumers can decide the taste will be inferior. Secondly, among other properties, sodium performs an important preservative effect.

Consumers can and do search for healthier product alternatives, but sodium reduction is generally regarded less importantly by consumers than either fat or sugar in improving health. For this reason, many manufacturers are attempting a gradual ‘reduction by stealth’ approach for sodium, to allow individual palates to adjust. Alternatively, other products perceived as more ‘salty in taste’ are sometimes positioned directly to consumers as healthier choices, and these are tracked in foods by Euromonitor as, for example, Better for You (BFY) Reduced Salt Sweet and Savoury Snacks.

Packaged Bread Consumption by Country (2007 and 2012)


Source: Euromonitor International

As a dietary staple in many countries, packaged or plant bread contributes a considerable proportion of daily sodium to the diet, primarily due to its high frequency of consumption. In 2012, the UK packaged bread industry was valued at US$4 billion (£2.5 billion retail sales value), with sales of 1.6 million tonnes, using constant prices and fixed exchange rates.

Why is sodium needed in bread?

In packaged bread, manufacturers rely on sodium ingredients to:

  • Maintain rapid plant production without the dough sticking during the process
  • Control yeast fermentation and provide a desirable airy crumb texture
  • Prevent bacterial growth and provide a longer shelf life in finished breads by controlling water activity

What have UK bread manufacturers achieved?

By reformulating products, the UK Federation of Bakers state that packaged bread manufacturers in the UK, at least in part of their ranges, have met the 2012 targets set by the Department of Health/Food Standards Agency and now await the next revision of the Responsibility Deal targets for packaged bread. As such, manufacturers largely produce breads containing a maximum 1.0g of salt per 100g product (0.4g sodium), with bagels and croissants meeting a lower target of 0.75g of salt per 100g. The three largest UK manufacturers account for nearly 70% of the market share in packaged bread, excluding any private label production.

Salt and sodium reduction has been made possible by investing in plant and equipment, and by changing recipe methodologies. In a contrasting approach, the Netherlands revised its legislation in 2011, reducing the total salt content in finished packaged bread by 0.4g to 2.1g per 100g. Setting legislation for sodium requires a higher permissible level, as not all companies are able to achieve the same level of ingredient reduction.

How is this marketed?

In 2013, bakery manufacturers have no business incentive to reduce sodium content in their products, other than to help customers improve their general health. However, many larger manufacturers are doing this voluntarily.

As an ingredient, sodium in salt is cheap to use. Its alternatives are more expensive, with limited functionality, in a volume-driven market. If most manufacturers and the majority of market share are covered in the initiative, the question of whether a business incentive or a regulatory requirement is needed becomes unnecessary.

What does this mean for the future?

As time goes on, it is likely that manufacturers will face the law of diminishing returns in progressively reducing sodium content in bread products. Currently, potassium bicarbonate is not regarded as an acceptable replacement for sodium bicarbonate as a raising agent under UK Department of Health criteria, although partial replacements for sodium chloride are available. If legislation is not proposed in the UK to cover all manufactured products, a key objective for industry needs to find a way of positively marketing reduced-sodium breads and bakery products, while emphasising that product taste is maintained.

Frequency of Occasions when Meals are Purchased and Eaten Outside the Home (UK) 2013


Source: Euromonitor International

Note: Based on a survey of 504 respondents in the UK, across demographic groups

What about other industry categories?

Although other savoury categories are equally challenged, UK bread companies are successfully continuing to limit sodium consumption by targeting the largest branded and also private label breads. A total of 80 separate targets have been set for sodium reduction across all food categories. However, the Department of Health is not effectively targeting the much more fragmented consumer foodservice channel in 2013, a liberal salt user, which therefore obscures the overall consumption of salt in UK food. With an increasing number of people eating outside the home on frequent occasions for social and convenience reasons, it will be important to make efforts in this area also. Legislation may be the only way to do this, making all companies in the market equal. For, after all else is considered, what can be more important than health and wellbeing?

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