Rather than finding a happy half-way house between the demands of health campaigners and the needs of plant bakers, the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) 2012 salt reduction targets were greeted with criticism from both sides when they were published last month.
"Technically impossible" is how the Federation of Bakers described the new target of 1g of salt per 100g of bread and rolls - this despite the fact that it was a more lenient target than the 0.93g originally proposed by the FSA. Meanwhile anti-salt lobby group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) slammed the target, claiming thousands of lives could be saved with a tougher approach.
The salt-in-bread debate is in danger of descending into a frustrating deadlock, although one way out of the stalemate could come from the craft baking sector. Anthony Kindred, owner of Kindred’s Bakery in London, who has worked on an FSA and National Association of Master Bakers project looking into reducing salt in craft bread, is confident the sector will be able to achieve both the 2010 and 2012 targets.
"Craft bakeries are more flexible than the plant bakers. We can use techniques such as sponge-and-dough and longer fermentation times, which help strengthen the dough and give flavour. This means you don’t need as much salt," he says. "For plant bakers to change lines costs millions, but for craft bakers, it’s just a couple of hours’ extra work. Meeting the targets would be a tremendous marketing opportunity for the sector."
Salt levels in craft bread are currently at around 1.4g per 100g, says Kindred, making the 2010 target of 1.1g potentially the most difficult step. "After that, the last 0.1g to reach the 2012 targets will be relatively easy," he says.
If craft bakers do manage to meet 2012 targets, it is likely to put pressure on plant bakers. Gordon Polson, director of the Federation of Bakers, says that plant bakers are unlikely to meet 2012 targets because dough with reduced salt levels becomes too sticky, which leads to blockages on the production line.
"Bakers have invested in ingredients and plant to overcome stickiness, but to take the next step we need a different solution and we don’t know what that is. We are talking about huge multi-million-pound processes. The bread has to be consistent, technologically possible and meet consumer requirements," he says. "By saying we don’t think we can meet the 2012 targets we are being honest and responsible. It would be disingenuous to say we can meet them when we can’t. We are proud of our work to cut salt and will continue to work with the FSA."
The problem with the big bread brands’ claims that they have reached the upper limits of salt reduction is that there are plant loaves on the shelves that already meet FSA 2012 targets. CASH points to supermarket own-label plant breads that go well beyond 2012 targets.
Professor Graham MacGregor, CASH chairman, says: "If Sains-bury’s can sell bread with 0.7g of salt per 100g, why can’t brands such as Hovis, Warburtons and Kingsmill? It’s sad to see some bakers are not prepared to lower the salt content of their products. We can only speculate that this is for commercial reasons."
In its comments on the new 2012 targets, the FSA highlighted the success of retailers in reducing salt in own-label bread to levels of between 0.75g and 1g salt per 100g, while also noting that premium breads have salt levels that are still above this. According to CASH, Kingsmill’s Great Everyday Soft White loaf contains 1.18g per 100g.
Polson takes issue with the comparison of own-label and premium, branded bread, arguing that they are very different products. "[Premium bread] is a product that goes through a bakery in a 24-hour, seven-day process. If you start getting blocking [from sticky doughs], it means increased costs and wastage. The volumes of own-label bread are much lower."
The danger remains, however, that if the craft and own-label sectors achieve the 2012 targets, the big brands could become increasingly isolated on salt, leaving themselves open to further criticism from the likes of CASH and the FSA.