Hidden salt in bread still a challenge for consumers
Australia’s biggest independent bakery chain says it’s unlikely to adopt proposed salt reduction targets aimed at improving the nation’s cardiovascular health, citing factors such as ‘oven spring’.
Stakeholders were given until last week to comment on the Federal Government’s proposed Voluntary Food Reformulation Targets for bread, which have been developed together with industry through the Healthy Foods Partnership.
A maximum target of 380mg of sodium per 100g has been proposed for leavened breads, to be achieved by the end of 2022. A separate target of 450mg/100g has been proposed for flat breads.
The consultation paper notes bread is a major contributor to Australians’ excess dietary sodium intake.
“Reducing sodium intake can reduce blood pressure, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease,” it says.
However, a spokesman for Bakers Delight, which has 13.6% of the Australian bread market share, told doctorportal the proposed sodium target would have “too much negative impact” on the flavor and structure of its breads.
“Salt is an essential part of [bread’s] delicious flavour, helps regulate the fermentation process and strengthens the gluten matrix. Without salt, the dough becomes very unstable and is unlikely to hold its structure and shape when baked. It can also lead to an uneven crumb structure and less ‘oven spring’,” the spokesman said.
Bakers Delight advertises the kilojoule count for its products in store, but the sodium content can only be found by visiting the company’s website. Its Hi-Fibre Lo-GI block loaf, marketed for school lunches, contains 532mg of sodium/100g, while its healthier Wholemeal Country Grain block loaf contains 475mg of sodium/100g. The company’s lowest salt bread – the Cape Seed loaf – meets the draft targets with 297mg of sodium/100g, but it’s also much more expensive than other products, at $6.30 a loaf.
Bakers Delight said it had reduced the sodium content of its breads in recent years.
“Traditionally, Australian bakers have worked to a ‘2% of flour weight’ ratio however since 2012, we have used a 1.8% ratio,” the spokesman said. “We’ve also implemented an average 15% salt reduction across our Sourdough and Soy and Linseed range.”
Nevertheless, its Sourdough Vienna loaf still contains 625mg of sodium/100g.
It’s a similar story across many other bread brands. In March last year the George Institute for Global Health warned that just one slice of Schwob’s Dark Rye bread contained more than double the amount of salt as a serving of Kettles sea salt crisps (660mg of sodium/100g). More than a year later, Schwob’s website shows no change in the product’s nutritional information.
The same George Institute report highlighted extremely high salt levels in flat breads, naming Coles Tortillas, which contained 920mg of sodium per 100g in 2017 and still do today.
Consumers in the dark
One of the challenges for consumers trying to reduce their dietary salt intake is that sodium is often a hidden and unexpected ingredient.
A study of over 400 people in Lithgow found people tended to underestimate the amount of dietary salt they consumed. Based on dietary recall, people estimated they consumed 6.4g of salt per day on average.
However, 24-hour urine collection revealed the best estimate of daily salt intake was about 9·9 g/day – around twice as much as the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of maximum salt intake of 5g/day.
Consumers may also be left confused by mixed media messages about the potential harms of salt.
For instance, an observational study of over 90,000 people published in the Lancet last month found both low and high sodium intake (below 2g/day or above 5g/day) were associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, experts have criticised that study’s method of measuring salt intake, and aspects of its design, including the potential for reverse causation if people switched to a low-salt diet due to ill health.
Professor Bruce Neal, a Senior Director at The George Institute said: “It remains the case that the totality of the available evidence provides a strong argument for significant harms from excess salt consumption all around the world.”
To help consumers be more aware of their salt intake, the George Institute has produced the FoodSwitch App, which enables users to scan the barcode of supermarket products and quickly identify whether they have low, medium or high sodium content. The app has had 750,000 all-time downloads.
The big retailers
Both Coles and Woolworths are executive members of the Healthy Food Partnership.
Clare Farrand, Senior Project Manager for Salt Reduction at the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre on Population Salt Reduction told doctorportal:
“Currently Woolworths is leading the way in the retail space in Australia and has committed to improving the nutritional profile of their own brands.”
She added: “There is still a long way to go, but this is a positive first step, which we hope will encourage many more companies to get on board.”
In 2015, Woolworths worked with The George Institute to develop over 150 category targets for sodium, sugar, saturated fat and kilojoules. All products developed under Woolworths Own Brand are required to meet these targets.
A spokeswoman for Coles told doctorportal the retailer intends to work with its suppliers to achieve the final salt-reduction targets, which are due to be released by the Partnership in early 2019.
“Since 2010, the company has annually removed more than 40 tonnes of salt from its Own Brand products,” she added.