Salt away

17 November 2005
Salt away

The slug is an unlikely mascot for a food health campaign, but this year Sid the Slug has become the figurehead for a push by the Government's Food Standards Agency to reduce the nation's salt intake to 6g per day.

According to recent research by the FSA, about 22 million Britons are trying to reduce their salt intake this year - six million more than last year. And the Government is keen to encourage it, since £840m a year is spent by the NHS on ailments related to high blood pressure, in many cases brought on by too much salt.

Putting salt on food at the table is a choice for the customer, but according to the FSA about three-quarters of our intake comes from processed foods, including ready-prepared sauces. So what are manufacturers doing to reduce salt and other additives such as preservatives, colourings, fat and MSG in their sauces? And how can chefs communicate these changes to customers?

Levels of additives in processed foods are strictly controlled by legislation. Amounts vary depending on the additive and the legislation specifies categories of foods they can be used in. Levels are set according to food consumption patterns and the likelihood of exceeding an acceptable daily intake. Enforcement is the responsibility of local authorities, which target manufacturers in sampling programmes. Salt content is unregulated, although the FSA is in the process of setting levels in food in consultation with stakeholders from the health sector and food manufacturers. It expects to set voluntary targets in 2006.

That's the regulatory background to an increasing public awareness of the detrimental effects of salt and other food additives, but what are manufacturers doing about it? Food and Drink Federation members have committed to reducing levels of fat, salt and sugar in products. In a recent survey in the industry it found that by the end of this year, £7.4b-worth of products will have less salt, £2.2b-worth will have less fat and £1.4b-worth will have less sugar.

These changes are being felt in the food service sauces market, where manufacturers are reducing salt and other additives in their products. Customer demand for healthier food, Government campaigning and often pressure from chefs are given as reasons.

RHM Foodservice, for example, has reduced levels of salt in its Sharwood's Indian and Chinese cooking sauces. Coral Rose, head of marketing, says campaigns like Sid the Slug have raised people's awareness of the danger of consuming too much salt. "They've also made the industry react," she says. "In the last 12 months the manufacturing industry has launched 69 low-salt SKUs, which shows just how seriously we as manufacturers are taking the issue. Even chefs who don't cook from scratch can better control the salt level of their dishes - after all, it's easy for chefs to add salt but they can't take it out."

Unilever Foodsolutions has implemented an assessment programme based on World Health Organisation guidelines and national dietary recommendations across its portfolio of products. By the end of this year, all Knorr sauces and pastes will have seen a reduction in sodium of at least 10%, with some reduced by 25%.

Meanwhile, Nestlè, in its Maggi tomato sauces which are used as a base in a variety of dishes, has reduced salt to less than 0.5g per 100g, removed all gluten, and substitutes sunflower oil for hydrogenated fats. It has also launched a range of Mediterranean sauces, to tie in with the region's image for healthy food. Susan Gregory, marketing manager for food in the food service sector, says: "Pressure is coming from a range of places. There is the Government of course, but also it comes from chefs. We did some research last year and chefs said they wanted reduced salt in sauces because they want to season them themselves. Consumers are not the biggest source of pressure for reduced salt - key drivers are things like allergenic ingredients, such as nuts and gluten."

Lee Kum Kee has recently launched a professional range of sauces for the European market with reduced salt, no MSG and no preservatives. Senior business development manager Jason Beaumont says: "There's a lot of government pressure to reduce salt and additive levels, although we notice it more from chefs - to reduce MSG and other additives, for example. It's a challenge, obviously. In things like soy sauce you can't completely get rid of salt, but we're cutting it down to around 5%. You can bring down levels as much as possible but can't remove it completely or you destroy the integrity of the product."

Pressure from chefs is commonly cited as the reason for sauces with less salt and additives. Whether that pressure is being passed on from customers is a moot point, and those at the front line in food service are certain salt and other additives are not the key concern of customers. Steve Shaffer, catering development manager with Punch Taverns, says: "Being a tenanted group, our pubs can do what they like. There's little noticeable demand from the public, and it's only if I've been in a managed house that I've seen reference to low salt on the menu. I don't know if that's a sales ploy or they genuinely believe people are interested. In the supermarkets people look at what's in their food, so it's down to suppliers to demonstrate to chefs that foods have lower salt and additive contents and they can pass that information on in their menus.

"Chefs I speak to are aware of the need to cut salt, but they're led by the food service companies which make and supply the sauces. If the manufacturer cuts the salt and other additives, the chefs will too," he says.

Jason Danciger, catering director for the Laurel Pub Company, says he's noticed little legal or consumer pressure for less salt or additives, but finds customers are concerned about their food - and he lays the law down to suppliers to ensure they're satisfied.

"Brands like Haha and Slug & Lettuce are known for the use of fresh ingredients and cooking from scratch, so these types of things are less of a concern for us," he says.

"Customers are far more interested in, for example, the provenance of meat or food miles. But we've decided to take the bull by the horns anyway and begun to produce dishes with no or little salt."

To ensure that suppliers comply with the company's aims, the Laurel Pub Company has a charter specifying attributes such as no MSG and low food miles in the products it buys. "Also," says Danciger, "whenever we source composite sauces we ask for a breakdown of all ingredients and where we find things we don't want - such as a string of E numbers - we reject them."

The Laurel brands show healthiness of ingredients is a selling point for operators. Even where chefs are tied to using pre-prepared items such as sauces, manufacturers can help them highlight the healthy options on menus.

Nestlè's Gregory points to operators such as Eurest and Fresh Italy, which use a traffic light system to indicate salt, fat and additive content, and Leon Restaurants, which highlight vegetarian dishes and those that are wheat-free, have no or low animal fat and contain "good" forms of carbohydrate and sugar.

It's a case of getting the message across. Wherever the pressure for healthier sauces is coming from, whether the Government, chefs or consumers, one thing is certain - manufacturers are reducing salt and other additives in food products and customers respond to that.

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