In the second of a four part series analysing the Responsibility Deal, Siobhan O'Neill examines the uptake of the two salt pledges and asks some of those that signed up what challenges they had to overcome
It was back in 2004 when the big campaign to get Britons reducing their salt intake first hit the headlines. The Government, via the Food Standards Agency (FSA), aimed to target the 26 million people it estimated were eating more than the recommended 6g of salt per day. Back then men were on average eating 11g daily, while women were eating just over 8g.
The FSA went to manufacturers and suppliers, working with supermarkets to cut salt in processed food where 75% of most people's salt intake originated. And from the start the campaign proved controversial, with as many naysayers and detractors commenting on the plan as those promoting it.
Almost nine years on and the Department of Health is content that good progress is being made. Many companies have since committed to the Public Health Responsibility Deal pledges on salt reduction, and the 2011 urinary sodium survey revealed that the average person's salt intake is 15% lower than it was a decade ago.
"We believe in helping our customers make healthier choices in easier ways," says Debbie Melhuish, Costa Coffee's head of food development. "Reducing salt is one way to do so and we were happy to sign up to the pledge to demonstrate our commitment."
Costa implemented salt reduction some time ago and met the 2010 targets, managing to cut 2,100kg of salt from its bakery range alone. Its bread, sandwiches, sauces and cured meats all now have less salt, and Costa is on target for the current 2012 reductions with no meal choices offering more than 33% of GDA on salt, fat, sugar or calories.
Of course salt reduction poses different problems in different sectors of the industry. Costa's menu is largely fixed, but in restaurants with a changing menu monitoring salt use is more tricky and can't be achieved through procurement alone.
"The salt content of all new products is considered from the outset of any development brief, and all new products launched have to achieve 2012 salt targets," says Ruth Powell, food safety and development manager for Marston's, the independent brewer that operates more than 2,000 pubs across the UK.
"We have rigorous protocols in place to ensure that the changes we have made to products are not undermined by kitchen practices. A team of trainers, menu developers and auditors have managed portion control and thus salt content," she says.
In fact only seven out of 80 categories in Marston's products do not meet the targets and they are from external brands, which the company is lobbying for further salt reduction.
Charlton House, the business and industry arm of CH&Co, made a commitment to salt reduction and it ensures it remains uppermost in its chefs' minds. "We have a ‘think before you pinch' programme," says chief executive Caroline Fry.
"During Salt Awareness Week we got all our chefs to work out how much salt they were using in one week and then we simply drew a line on a bucket of salt. Suddenly they were very aware of what they were using within their team and when we gauged it the following week it was something like a 28% reduction in salt, which was our pledge target."
Fry says Charlton House's customers haven't really noticed. "When you hear people say food doesn't taste good, what they often mean is that it doesn't taste of salt, which is why you've got to get the flavours of the food coming out more. Our chefs are creative so we didn't want to give them recipes to follow and they haven't got the time for huge nutritional analyses so what we've done is simple and effective. Investing in our chefs is key because they're the ones who can make or break it."
Salt reduction "We commit to the salt targets for the end of 2012 agreed by the Responsibility Deal, which collectively will deliver a further 15% reduction on 2010 targets. These targets will give a total salt reduction of nearly 1g per person per day compared to 2007 levels in food. We recognise that achieving the public health goal of consuming no more than 6g of salt per person per day will necessitate action across the whole industry, Government, NGOs and individuals."
Self catering To enable caterers and suppliers to play a fuller part in salt reduction, the Department of Health has developed three additional salt pledges to capture the potential for salt reduction arising from different business models. The pledges are intended to foster innovation and add new momentum to existing work. The salt catering pledges focus on training and kitchen practice, reformulation and procurement.
CASE STUDY: raymond blanc trains charlton house chefs
Charlton House worked with its consultant nutritionist Amanda Ursell and took 40 of its chefs for training with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons. The Michelin-starred chef gauged the salt tolerances of the Charlton House team through a salt taste test.
"He put a gram of salt in a litre of water, two, three, four up to 10, and he asked them to taste it and say whether they thought it was 1 or 10 in the water," explains chief executive Caroline Fry.
"By the end of the session they were able to gauge what levels of salt were in the water. He also showed them some really clever ways to change salt usage by using different herbs or lemon, or using natural juices in the meat."
The chefs went back to their teams and rolled their knowledge out across the company.
"It's a really simple way of being visibly able to say from one week to the next what we're using," adds Fry. "It's been really successful."
CASE STUDY: tragus is pleased with early achievements
Casual dining group Tragus operates Café Rouge, Strada and Bella Italia, all of which have signed up to the salt pledges.
"The pledge is a way to make an official commitment so it puts more pressure on us to deliver," explains Francois Chapoulet, Tragus commercial director. "We've made some progress, but it's a mammoth task."
So far the group has reduced its salt by 8% and while Chapoulet recognises there is some work still to do, Tragus is pleased with its early achievements. A lot of work has been done with suppliers to find alternative product options with the caveat that there must be no compromise on taste, but there has also been a great deal of emphasis on re-educating the chefs on how they use salt.
Chapoulet says: "We use up to 3,000 ingredients and for each of them you need to know how much salt there is, so you need to go back to the supplier and feed massive spreadsheets through the system."
For others committing to the pledge, Chapoulet suggests that they need to clearly understand how time consuming it is going to be for somebody in the team.
"It's not a small project," he adds. "If you want to make it a priority it can be a priority but it's not to be considered lightly. It's the right thing to do but it's not an easy thing to do."
Five ways to commit to the pledges
1 Understand that committing to the salt pledges is achieveable but time consuming and prepare for it.
2 Get your team to measure their salt use before asking them to cut down. This way they can see the difference.
3 Train your chefs to ‘think before they pinch' so they consciously consider whether the salt is necessary.
4 Discover alternative ways to enhance flavour - for example, using herbs and spices, lemon juice or natural juices in meat.
5 Work with your suppliers to source products with lower salt content - many have already made significant strides in reducing salt levels in their own brands.
Tracey Rogers, managing director of Unilever Food Solutions
"For every one gram of salt we cut from our average daily intake, up to 6,000 lives could be save, so it's no surprise salt reduction remains a priority of the Responsibility Deal. However, it's a challenge for chefs to find the balance between meeting targets and still tantalising consumers' taste buds.
"Recent research reveals that consumers are concerned about salt intake, but are not willing to compromise on taste. As part of our commitment to the pledge, we're focusing on making gradual improvements to our ingredients that give our customers confidence that they're still able to provide their consumers with great-tasting dishes."