Bakers Journal

Shaking the sodium habit

March 28, 2011
By Brandi Cowen

Even before opening the doors of Willow Cakes & Pastries in
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., a sweet, yeasty-cinnamon aroma fills the air.
How could customers not file inside to choose from an array of

Even before opening the doors of Willow Cakes & Pastries in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., a sweet, yeasty-cinnamon aroma fills the air. How could customers not file inside to choose from an array of temptations?

Baked goods account for a big chunk of the pie when it comes to sodium in the Canadian diet. 


Health Canada has sodium in its sights. The average Canadian adult consumes 3,092 milligrams of sodium every day, more than double the daily 1,500 milligrams the human body needs to function properly, says our federal health department. This excess intake raises the chance of high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart and kidney disease, as well as stroke.

In October 2007, the federal government established the Sodium Working Group to help Canadians curb their intake. The group was tasked with developing a plan to reduce Canadians’ sodium consumption as part of a broader population health strategy. In July 2010, the working group tabled the Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada, a report detailing nearly 30 recommendations and a three-pronged plan to cut the levels of sodium in the country’s food supply. The multifaceted approach called for a structured voluntary reduction of sodium levels in processed food and goods sold in foodservice establishments, an awareness and education of Canadians, health professionals and important stakeholders as well as research into sodium and further reductions.

“The way I like to put it is this: it’s not a one-prong stool, it will not stand by itself,” says Paul Hetherington, president of the Baking Association of Canada (BAC) and a member of the now defunct Sodium Working Group. “It was a complete strategy – three prongs, three initiatives – that needed to be implemented at the same time.”

Health Canada acted on the first of those three initiatives by announcing a new series of sodium targets for numerous types of foods earlier this year. The targets, which are meant to stimulate voluntary reductions across the food industry, are stated as milligrams of sodium per 100 grams of product weight, and as a sales weighted average (SWA). Health Canada defines SWA on its website as “the average of the sodium levels of all products in a category weighted by their volume market share…The proportion of the market is measured as the kilogram volume sales of product rather than the dollar value. As such, to meet a target a company must reduce the sodium levels in their products in a given category such that the average is equal to or lower than the SWA target.”

Interim targets are set for 2012 and 2014, with a final maximum target level set for the year 2016.

 “The 2016 SWAs are set such that if achieved by the food industry, the [Sodium Working Group’s] interim goal of a population average sodium intake of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day will be met, assuming no change in eating patterns,” outlines the department’s website. Health Canada’s stated hope is that these limits will encourage the food industry to eliminate the highest sodium products in each category.

Meeting these ambitious targets will be a challenge for the whole food industry in the coming years, but it may prove especially difficult for the bakeries. The Sodium Working Group’s report found that bread, including all commercial breads, muffins, buns, biscuits, rolls and similar baked products, accounts for 14 per cent of the sodium in the Canadian diet, making it the biggest chunk of the pie graph (aside from ‘other’ at 17 per cent).

The intentions driving this push for sodium reduction are good. But the reality is that the targets may not be attainable, particularly on the timeline Health Canada has established.

 Many ingredients, such as butter, contain sodium. Cutting sodium from your baking may depend on your suppliers making some cuts of their own.


“We’re supportive of the total strategy,” says Hetherington. But, he adds, the BAC believes the interim targets are “extremely aggressive” and questions whether they are realistically attainable.

“On a category-wide basis, I’ve yet to see evidence that they are,” Hetherington explains. “We note, for example, that the bread target has not been achieved anywhere in the world. We’ve gone back and recommended to Heath Canada that they adopt a target of 400 milligrams per 100 grams, which is similar to what has occurred in both the U.K. and Australia.”

Hetherington is also critical of the method used to set targets. “We get the Health Canada officials saying, ‘We do know a product is available in the marketplace at or below this level,’ and we’re trying to make the argument back to them that you cannot set the benchmark for the entire industry based on a single product being in the marketplace.” He cites breads as an example, noting that there are countless varieties of breads, all with different textures, densities and formulations. Hetherington says believing all breads can achieve the same result as a single product is “completely unrealistic and fails a logic test.”

But it’s not just breads that pose a challenge for bakers trying to comply with the voluntary reduction schedule. In the case of sweet goods, such as cookies and cakes, bakers may find themselves unable to make much headway until other members of the food industry make cuts in their own products.

“The sodium content is primarily from other ingredients, such as baking soda, baking powder, margarine and dairy ingredients,” says Hetherington. “Therefore, there has to be a commitment and, in some cases, regulatory approval, of new ingredients to allow the baker to reach these sodium targets.”

There’s no doubt about it. For bakeries big and small, cutting sodium will present challenges, though what those are may vary from one operation to the next.

“In a highly automated facility, the reductions in bread are challenging just by nature of the stickiness of the dough. It becomes more sticky as you remove salt from it, so it literally gums up the works,” Hetherington explains. “Conversely, I’ve heard retail bakers say their situation is pretty challenging because they make a batch of dough for more than one type of bread product.” Those products may each have a different target sodium level, leaving bakers with a tough choice between repurposing their dough to create a variety of products and delivering the healthier choices consumers are looking for.

In some instances, a sodium replacer may be used to counter some of the obstacles associated with sodium reduction. In a 2007 study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, researchers compared a standard brown bread formulation to experimental breads in which potassium, magnesium and calcium salts partially replaced sodium salt. The resulting loaves were compared based on sensory properties, nutritional composition and the feasibility of producing each formulation on an industrial scale.

 “A 32.3 per cent reduced-sodium brown bread was developed that was acceptable in terms of baking qualities, appearance, texture and taste,” the researchers concluded.

Although sodium replacement is a practical way to introduce sodium cuts, it’s an alternative that some consumers may find hard to swallow.

“They develop an alternative taste, a more metallic taste, which has to be compensated with other ingredients,” says Hetherington. Besides which, he adds, those other ingredients often run counter to what many customers are shopping for these days. “We’re looking for that cleaner label, that more natural label. We don’t want to be adding more ingredients that consumers don’t understand and that have chemical names.”

“We could potentially have the law of proverbial unintended consequences here, where we say we have to remove sodium, but the only way you can do that is by adding a host of other chemicals that we know consumers are shying away from.”

Though reformulating tried and true products is a major challenge the industry will have to overcome in the coming years, there might be an even bigger challenge on the horizon in the form of communicating to consumers why the products they know and love are changing.

“There’s been a lot of investment in the establishment of targets for the food industry, but there has yet to be any commitment by any level of government to any of the other prongs of the [sodium reduction] strategy,” Hetherington explains. He adds that, “the consumer awareness should have been implemented before the food targets are brought into force, simply because that establishes with the consumer that the food supply is changing.” He says it would also encourage consumers to actively seek out lower sodium products.

With so many obstacles ahead, progress in achieving lower levels of sodium in bakery products may be slow, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Studies have shown consumers tend not to notice when the amount of sodium in a product decreases gradually. A study published in a 2003 edition of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that participants weren’t able to detect a difference in white bread formulations when up to one-quarter of the salt was cut from a recipe. In this six-week study, researchers divided the participants into two groups. The control group was given white bread prepared with the same standard amount of sodium for the entire study period. The second group was given a supply of bread with five per cent less sodium each week.

 “The intervention group were no more likely than the control group to report a difference in the salt content of the bread from week to week,” the researchers concluded.

The study also reported no differences in the scores participants awarded their respective breads for flavour or likability. However, researchers did note that among participants evaluating sodium-reduced bread, the scores awarded for product appearance declined throughout the study compared to those recorded for regular white bread.

All evidence points to gradual reductions as the best way to keep consumers happy, and the most realistic way forward for the food industry. Lower sodium products will appeal to increasingly health-conscious consumers, but there are limits to what’s practical for bakers, and those limits vary from bakery to bakery. Each operation must determine what is possible in the short and the long term, and then develop a realistic plan to introduce changes over time.

As Hetherington says, “Regardless of the best efforts of industry, it’s not going to change overnight.”

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