We Swedes eat too much salt, something that can lead to ill health and increased healthcare costs. The main source however is not the salt we sprinkle on our food at home but the salt used in processed foods and on the food we eat in restaurants. A number of food industry stakeholders are now working with RISE to reduce the level of salt while retaining flavour.
Our food contains excessive amounts of salt and the fact is that Swedish salt consumption is double the amount recommended by the Swedish National Food Agency. Too much salt can cause high blood pressure and lead to serious secondary diseases such as heart attacks and strokes. The World Health Organization lists excess salt alongside smoking as the greatest risk to public health.
And the salt we add at home is not the major problem – approximately 75% of the salt we consume comes from food processed by the food industry or cooked in restaurant kitchens.
“The industry is well aware of this and it is keen to contribute to improving public health, while at the same time strengthening competitiveness,” says RISE researcher Tim Nielsen.
Together with 18 partners from various sectors of the food industry, RISE is managing a project aimed at developing methods for producing foods with lower salt content that maintain the taste, quality and safety of the products.
Swedes love their salt
The food industry is facing a challenge in meeting the demands of both consumers and regulatory authorities. We want our food to taste good and in Sweden we are used to generous amounts of salt. Convincing us to reduce our salt consumption is a complex problem; a product marketed as low on salt risks alienating consumers and rapidly disappearing from supermarket shelves. In the same way, it is difficult for individual producers to reduce the amount of salt in their products without risking reduced sales.
“Here in Sweden we are used to eating salty food. Progress has been made elsewhere in various ways, with some countries legislating on salt content and others collaborating with industry to reduce the amount of salt. What we are doing is developing methods for manufacturing food with lower levels of salt while maintaining characteristics such as flavour and safety,” explains project manager Tim Nielsen.
Well on the way
At around the half-way mark in the project, a number of different methods have been developed for producing foods with reduced salt content and progress is now sufficient to begin manufacturing demonstration products.
“We will be manufacturing four products from different food categories. These will then be evaluated and compared with reference products, both sensorially and microbially. Environmental and economic assessments will also be conducted. The aim is to develop general methods that are applicable to many forms of food production, not only to our model products,” says Tim Nielsen.
Major social benefits
The goals of the project are to both increase the competitiveness of Swedish food producers and to contribute to improved public health. If increased availability of low-salt products can reduce Swedes’ salt consumption, this could be very significant. An estimate of the benefits suggests that a reduction of salt consumption of 3 grams per person and day could prevent approximately 2,000 premature deaths each year and that the healthcare service could make an annual saving in the region of SEK 3 billion. Tim Nielsen believes that it is unlikely that the majority of consumers are aware of this.
“It is difficult to change ingrained behaviour and we sometimes see conflicting reports about how dangerous it is to eat too much salt. The majority of experts are however agreed that we should reduce our salt intake. Some of the reports that claim the opposite should be taken with a pinch of salt.”