Bakers Journal

An idea worth its salt

June 4, 2010
By Michelle Brisebois

Ingredients tend to fall in and out of favour depending on consumer
trends. Trans fats, carbohydrates, monosodium glutamate and corn syrup
have all been demonized lately. Now it’s salt’s turn to play the
scapegoat – but eliminating it from the ingredient equation isn’t a
simple decision.

Ingredients tend to fall in and out of favour depending on consumer trends. Trans fats, carbohydrates, monosodium glutamate and corn syrup have all been demonized lately. Now it’s salt’s turn to play the scapegoat – but eliminating it from the ingredient equation isn’t a simple decision.

You see, we need salt. We need it physically at safe levels to maintain health and we need it functionally in bakery formulations. Health Canada has focused on processed bakery products as the food group contributing the most sodium to the average Canadian’s diet. In an attempt to address this concern, reduction targets in all baking products are being proposed, and the Baking Association of Canada (BAC) is leading a cross-country consultation tour to address the impact this will have on the baking industry. But before we start to pass on the salt, we need to look at how important sodium levels are when it comes to marketing strategies.

Salt plays a crucial role in our bodies when consumed in moderation. Sodium helps keep calcium and other minerals soluble in the blood, it stimulates the adrenal glands, and it aids muscle activity. Functionally, it acts as a flavour enhancer and preservative, it helps the crust brown and it aids in dough development. But when taken in excess, scientists believe that sodium chloride (salt) inhibits enzymes that allow blood vessels to relax, and an un-relaxed blood vessel is one that exacerbates blood pressure.


We are ingesting more salt than practically any other country in the world – and paying a steep price in return. According to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, affects one in five Canadians. Hypertension is the number one risk factor for having a stroke, and a major risk factor for heart disease. Studies suggest that 42 per cent of Canadians with high blood pressure may not even know that they have it because it carries no obvious symptoms. Several pieces of recent research have sounded some significant alarm bells regarding Canada’s food supply and its love affair with the saltshaker, so for Canadians, monitoring the levels of salt we ingest is especially crucial.

World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) is an international health-advocacy group. Members of WASH include prominent experts who specialize in hypertension. WASH looked at nutritional information from websites of food manufacturers, zeroing in on fast food and processed foods from various countries around the world. WASH discovered that in every product studied, the amount of salt differs from country to country – even for the same products.

It was noted that for many foods, sodium levels are highest in Canada and lowest in Britain. This is largely due to the fact that Britain embarked upon a major initiative to reduce salt consumption. This difference extends even to breakfast cereals thought to be healthy for us. The study found that one bowl (100 grams) of All-Bran sold in this country contained 861 milligrams of sodium. This level represents more than one-third of the recommended daily intake for people age nine to 50.

By contrast, All Bran in the United States was reported to have 258 milligrams of sodium per 100 g. The Health Canada Sodium working group reports that on average, a Canadian consumes nearly 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. This level is more than double the recommended daily amount for adults, and considered quite in excess of acceptable. It’s not just about what Canadians are adding to their food as seasoning. The studies indicate that almost 80 per cent of the sodium intake of Canadians is ingested passively from packaged or processed food. But do Canadians really care?

According to research conducted by the NPD Group, older Canadians especially care. In 2005, 61 per cent of households with people 45 years and older indicated that they frequently check food labels to determine a product’s nutritional value. When asked what ingredients they tend to avoid, 65 per cent said saturated fats, 63 per cent said MSG, 62 per cent said cholesterol and 58 per cent identified salt.

When WASH asked food manufacturers why the same product sold in other countries has so much less salt than the Canadian version, they claimed that regional taste differences dictated more salt be added to the Canadian product. Of course, if you give people more salt, they will become accustomed to that taste profile and begin to demand more. Maybe the same rationale applies to reducing salt levels? Maybe the change will be less noticeable if we back off a bit at a time?

Health Canada recognizes that an instantaneous and dramatic reduction in sodium levels isn’t necessarily the most prudent approach. It states in its discussion paper to the BAC that it “… encourages manufacturers to lower the sodium content of their products gradually over time to the lowest level possible, taking into consideration food safety, quality and consumer acceptance.”

Anyone who has gone from drinking their coffee with sugar to having it without knows that within weeks, your taste buds adjust to the new profile. By decreasing the salt in steps, you’ll wean consumers onto a new expectation. They likely won’t even notice it.

Since the bulk of the concern Health Canada has is with processed baked goods, independent bakeries have an advantage because their businesses rely more on products consumed soon after baking. A loaf of bread eaten the same day it’s baked needs fewer preservatives than one held for weeks or months as it filters through the grocery supply chain. Be sure to promote this fact to your customers.

If you feel your products will still perform with a little less salt, then make the formulation change and indicate something to the effect of “new formulation made with less salt” on the price tag. You could potentially use more herbs, spices and other seasonings to address the loss of flavour associated with a decrease in added salt.

It’s not the responsibility of one industry to fix this problem. It takes two to tango and consumers must make educated decisions, too. One reason bakery products rise to the top of the hit list is because Canadians eat so much bread, so our control over this aspect of the equation is limited.

To cope with sodium reduction targets, make small changes where they make sense. Promote the fact that you’re moving in the right direction and if anyone suggests that dramatic changes are needed in one fell swoop, take it with a grain of salt.

Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in helping companies grow their brands and can be reached at

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