A shakeup in salt: alternatives present new challenges 

With consumer diets changing, and particularly shifting towards a greater focus on health and wellness, salt faces a challenge to retain popularity. Callum Tyndall finds out about the alternatives challenging it.

Salt is ubiquitous. It fills the sea, it flavours nearly every food imaginable, and it is one of the five elements of taste perception. It is hard to think of a kitchen without salt, and even beyond food it has a myriad of uses. It is likely this ubiquity has protected salt from the same demonisation other ingredients have faced in an increasingly health-conscious consumer environment. However, this does not change the fact that excess salt consumption plays a large role in unhealthy diets, to the point to that the former president of the World Hypertension League published a statement suggesting salt be sold with tobacco-like warning labels.  

The potential health considerations of salt are not exactly news; companies have been producing low-sodium or reduced salt alternatives for a while now, but with the current surge in wellness and health-based consumerism, can salt retain its ubiquity? Unlike sugar, which has faced its fair share of pushback for some time now, salt has not found quite the same level of public disregard. The market for alternatives has thus been slower to grow than sweeteners but, with Mordor Intelligence finding salt substitutes set for a 6.4% CAGR between 2018 and 2023, it is not to be disregarded. 

Excess salt abounds in dietary staples, despite health risks

In September, health group Action on Salt warned that the amount of salt contained in common sauces and marinades in the UK could be putting the health of consumers at risk. Reviewing 357 staples commonly available in supermarkets, including products such as ketchup and mayonnaise, the group found that 54% of the products were high in salt. Additionally, government-set voluntary salt targets that were supposed to have been met by the end of 2017 were found to have been exceeded in 38% of surveyed products. 

The evidence for the link between salt and blood pressure is as strong as that which links cigarette smoking to cancer.

Mhairi Brown, nutritionist at Action on Salt, says: “Very strong evidence from a large number of studies shows that eating too much salt raises our blood pressure. In fact, the evidence for the link between salt and blood pressure is as strong as that which links cigarette smoking to cancer and heart disease. High blood pressure puts us at increased risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes strokes and heart attacks, the most common cause of death and illness worldwide. 

“As with other chronic diseases, CVD is caused by a number of risk factors but as high blood pressure is largely preventable, salt reduction is one of the most important and cost-effective ways to reduce our risk of CVD. There is also evidence that a high salt intake is linked to kidney disease, osteoporosis and even stomach cancer. Salt may also be linked to obesity.”

It seems fairly settled that consumers should at the very least be aware of their salt intake and the potential risks of exceeding recommended daily intake, so why is it still so commonly being found in excessive amounts in staple products? Brown’s comments make clear that although it may not be as simple as ‘eat this much salt, get this disease’, the evidence shows there are high risks attached to excess salt consumption. Does salt, and in such high amounts, remain common simply because it’s what we’re used to?

The potential of potassium 

In and of itself, it’s easy to understand salt’s prominence: as one of the primary components of taste, we have an expectation for that element within our food and consumers are likely to be wary of alternatives that could alter or compromise that core expectation. While consumers may be aware that too much salt is bad, they perhaps do not know the level at which it becomes unhealthy and how frequently they may be consuming that amount. Assuming that to be the case, much more will be need to done to inform consumers if a significant market for alternatives is to be established. 

That is not to say such alternatives aren’t out there; aside from the range of sodium-high variations such as Himalayan or kosher salt, the industry has clearly acknowledged the risk of sodium with low-sodium replacements for some years. Potassium salts for example, offer similar flavour to standard salt but without the risks attached to high sodium intake (they may also have additional health benefits from increased potassium intake). While there has been some concern that increased potassium could harm those with impaired kidney intake, a 2017 review from the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, in collaboration with the Committee on Toxicity, found the potential benefits outweigh the risks. 

By replacing regular table salt at home, we would see a fall in sodium intake which should help lower blood pressure.

Brown continues: “In the UK, we eat too much sodium and not enough potassium. As adults, we’re recommended to eat 3,500mg of potassium a day but we’re only managing roughly 2,800mg. Potassium is found naturally in many foods such as fruit and vegetables and whereas sodium raises blood pressure, potassium actually lowers it. Potassium salts shouldn’t be considered as a source of potassium in the diet, but by replacing regular table salt at home, and if the food industry could use potassium salts in place of salt in their saltier products, we would see a fall in sodium intake which should help lower blood pressure.

“However, this is a short term solution. Potassium salt has the same salty taste as regular salt and so to successfully lower salt intake and maintain that lower intake, we must gradually add less salt or potassium salt to food over time to allow our taste buds to adjust to a less salty taste.”

Presenting a challenge to salt 

The challenge facing salt alternatives is two-fold: to properly inform consumers of the risks of salt not just in concept but in terms of actual regular consumption, and to convince them that a substitute can adequately serve in place of a product so widely used and understood. Brown suggests that consumers consider flavouring with “ingredients such as pepper, fresh herbs, spices and onion, garlic, lemon and chilli” in order to reduce their salt intake. 

It is by no means an easy challenge to contend with, and in order for salt alternatives to reach peak success manufacturers must essentially argue that an ingredient considered fundamental should be set aside. Doing so will be no easy feat but, if the evidence against sodium salt continues to mount, we may well see a rise in alternative salts or preventative measures akin to the sugar tax.

The challenge is to address this desire for natural ingredients when reducing salt content, without compromising on other product attributes.

GlobalData’s July 2018 report Ingredients Insight: Salt Reduction reads as follows: “In 2017, 29% of innovative new food and 32% of innovative new soft drink product launches featured claims related to being ‘natural’ or free from artificial ingredients. For both sectors, this is a significant increase since 2013, highlighting how innovators are responding to strong demand for natural ingredients among consumers globally. 

“Indeed, natural ingredients are cited as the top factor that would encourage consumers to choose one brand over another; with two thirds (66%) claiming to be interested and actively buying food and drink with natural claims. The challenge for brands and manufacturers is to address this desire for natural ingredients when reducing salt content, without compromising on other product attributes such as flavour, or shelf life.”

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