Blog: Dean BestEmphasising low salt? Consumers remain wary

Dean Best | 17 May 2012

Manufacturers the world over have been reducing the salt in products amid concerns over public health but there have been signs consumers have baulked at low-salt lines - and fresh research in Australia suggests shoppers could just end up adding salt back onto their products anyway.

The link between high salt intake and cardiovascular problems is well-documented and has been a factor in the work by industry and government in a number of countries to lower the levels of the nutrient in food.

As part of the UK government's Public Health Responsibility Deal, a set of policies to improve public health, the country's food industry has pledged to cut salt content by a further 15% on targets set for 2010 by the end of this year.

However, industry treads carefully when considering how to lower salt. The ingredients act as a preservative, so reducing levels could have unintended consequences.

Some consumers have expressed dissatisfaction with the taste of low-salt products, forcing companies to think again. Last year, Campbell Soup Co. increased the level of salt in 31 products in its Select Harvest range. "Not all user groups value sodium reduction equally," a Campbell executive said. Health campaigners, however, criticised the move.

Manufacturers, therefore, face a problem. Facing pressure from regulators over the link between salt and cardiovascular disease, they are looking at ways to lower salt without putting off consumers, who will either not buy low-salt products or just add the salt back anyway.

And new research from Australia's Deakin University and Unilever's R&D analysts in the Netherlands highlight the problems manufacturers face.

The study investigated the effect of nutrient labels and health logos on how much consumers expected to like and how salty they thought sodium-reduced soups would be.

Participants were shown the soup and asked what they expected of it in terms of liking, desire and saltiness. Soups were then freshly prepared from the packs. While tasting each soup, the study participants were requested to rate it on how much they liked it and salt intensity. After tasting a spoonful, they were permitted to add as much salt as they wanted from the salt shakers. Between different soups, participants had to rinse their mouth with water.

For all types of soup, more participants added table salt when the soup carried the reduced-salt label compared to when the same soup carried either a health logo or no label at all, the researchers said.

Those who did add salt, added more salt when soups carried the reduced-salt label, independent of the actual sodium content of the soup. When 30% sodium-reduced soup was labelled with a reduced-salt label, participants over-compensated the reduction in sodium by adding table salt beyond benchmark levels.

The mere exposure to the reduced-salt label resulted in lower expectations and a lower actual taste experience of the soups in terms of liking and saltiness. The perceived saltiness of the soups with a salt-reduction label was lower than would be expected based on the actual amount of salt in the soup, the researchers said. Providing the health logo or no label had no such influence on taste perception.

The study did find that only 28% of the participants added salt to the 15% sodium-reduced soups, indicating that such a reduction could be implemented if consumers are not made aware of the modification.

For more on this research, click here to visit the European Food Information Council website.


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