Scientific evidence on the risks of excessive salt intake for human health has been accumulating during the past decades. It is recognised that lives could be saved if salt intake is reduced. Consequently, massive pressure has been placed, by the press and health organizations, on reducing the amount of salt in processed food products, especially meat products. Surprisingly however, products that people consider to be naturally "healthy", such as cereals and processed sea food also contain high salt levels.
As we have seen, there are many essential effects of salt in processed pig-meat products; from organoleptic, chemical and physical effects to bacteriostatic. What is more, salt plays an essential role in the fermentation process in some products. There is no single ingredient that can substitute for all salt effects. Nonetheless, new formulations and technologies have been developed, and there are some products in which it has been possible to reduce the salt content markedly. In addition, sodium content has been lowered in recent years, as an industry initiative, in some processed meat products.
It can be expected that novel formulations and technologies will keep developing. So, what else is needed?
It is worth looking at other sectors of the food industry to see how they are managing the call for low-salt products. Take the bread industry, which like the pig-meat sector has a strong dependence on salt in its manufacturing processes. Salt is needed in bread-making not only to counteract the insipid flavour of salt-less bread, but also to condition the dough, making it firmer, less sticky and more resilient (van Geest 2008). It also controls the activity of the yeast, preventing excessively rapid rising during baking and uneven shape in the loaf. The main way the industry is reducing the sodium content of bread whilst optimising these dough properties is by adding other flavours in place of salt. These flavour distracters include seeds, spices and a range of taste potentiators (e.g. MaxariteTM). A similar approach can be used with spicy meat products, and this could be explored further for a range of other ready prepared meals and flavoured dishes.
Another further development would be the injection of pork in a similar way to the one used with meat enhancement in the USA. Enhancement is achieved by injecting water containing sodium, phosphates, and sometimes lactates. The main aim is to improve juiciness and tenderness. Needless to say this development would increase, rather than decrease, sodium intake. European legislation would not allow enhanced meat to be labelled as "fresh meat" (Regulation (EC) No 853/2004). Instead it would be labelled as a "meat preparation".
When marketing low salt products it is important to use customer-friendly and simple information on the labels. A recent survey showed that about half the people sampled at shopping centres in Australia were unable to accurately use labelled sodium information to pick low salt options. The important fault was that 65% of the participants were unable to correctly identify the relationship between salt and sodium (Grimes et al. 2009). Nevertheless, 88% understood the connection between salt intake and high blood pressure. Clearly there is a need for simpler ways of allowing purchasers to identify products which are appropriate to their health needs. Additionally, awareness campaigns are needed for people to understand these labels; and also, the effect that lowering salt will have on the eating quality of final product. Subsequently, consumers, will be able to make informed choices in a knowledgeable way.
Computer simulation models have been developed to assess and make projections on the impact that reducing salt consumption would have in terms of (i) reducing annual number of cardiovascular cases; (ii) annual cost savings in health care and (iii) annual gains in quality-adjusted life years. Although these models are based on numerous assumptions, they could be a useful tool to evaluate to what extent a policy is needed and would potentially benefit the population. For example, according to USA calculations, reducing salt consumption to 3g/day would save between $10 and $24 billion in health care cost annually; between194,000 and 392,000 quality adjusted life years and reduce by 60,000 to 120,000 the annual number of new coronary heart diseases cases (Bibbins-Domingo, K, et al, 2010).
Bibins-Domingo, K., Chertow, G.M., Coxson, P.G., Moran, A., Lighwood, J.M., Pletcher, M.J., Goldman, L. (2010), 'Projected effect of Dietary Salt Reductions on Future Cardiovascular Diseases', The New England Journal of medicine: 1-10
Grimes CA, Riddell LJ and Nowson CA. (2009). 'Consumer knowledge and attitudes to salt intake and labelled salt information'. Appetite 53 (2), 189-194.
Van Geest J-A. 2008. Healthier slice. International Food Ingredients: 2, 11-12.