As BB reported last issue, calls to cut salt in food are showing no signs of quieting down, with bakers still public enemy number one as far as people’s salt intake goes at least in the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) eyes. Controlling salt levels is no mean feat just ask the government, which found it conspicuously difficult when the snow hit earlier this year. So what can bakers do to help the government reach its salt reduction targets and perhaps save a bit back for gritting the pavements?

Over the years, salt levels in bread increased to overcome the lack of flavour from the adoption of short-time dough-making techniques. This peaked in the 1970s at 2.2% on flour. Great gains have been made to cut salt since then, but last year, the Food Standards Agency set a 2012 salt target of 1g per 100g for bread and rolls. This level is lower than the 2010 target of 1.1g.

In this spirit, BB conducted a tasting panel of reduced sodium recipes. Taste-testing for salt in products is a notoriously tricky exercise, given that one’s palate is easily influenced by salt. So we’re making no claim to a definitive judgement on these ingredients, and of course people adapt to changes in salt levels over time.

Salt has two important functions, to help stabilise the gluten structure of the dough and to impart flavour. So we just wanted a view on how consumers reacted to changes in formulation across three factors: cutting salt levels; salt alternatives; and flavour enhancers. Not every product of its type on the market has been benchmarked. The panel was relatively small, involving 12 tasters in each test.

Two standard products were picked a bread roll and a hot cross bun. Would people be able to tell the difference? And would any change in recipe be less noticeable in a spiced product?

BB approached John Haynes of JRH Associates a consultant specialising in bread projects and food assignments to run some tests. With decades of experience in bakery not least, breaking the field-to-loaf Guinness World Record Haynes said he liked unusual bread recipes and formats. He got his chance, with a salt alternative made from seaweed.

All doughs were treated in the same conditions. When it came to dough performance with the hot cross buns, "volume after proving with Test 2 was larger than all other tests," says Haynes; Test 3, containing Asco (seaweed), was tight and needed 1% extra addition of water; and the dough with Test 6 was light brown in colour. All other doughs performed similarly.

With the bread rolls, "Test 2 was slightly larger at the end of proof and did not collapse in the oven," he says, while the dough in Test 3 "was very discoloured and an extra 1% of water was added". However, the colour of the crumb improved after baking. Test 6, The Fermex ingredient, "was difficult to mix into the dough", thus why we abandoned it for the taste test, but it was "very golden brown in colour and had a good flavour profile after baking", he explains. Test 8 was slow in proof, so proved for 60 minutes, but resulted in "nice bold rolls", he adds.

And the outcome? With the control bread rolls, which had a calculated sodium content of 0.50g, the best result on taste came from Test 8, which had a salt level of 0.5% with the addition of an Italian Natural Yeast (BFL Levis+); this has a sodium content of 0.15g, a significant sodium reduction without apparent loss of flavour. Not far behind in points were the two Fermex sourdough-based flavour enhancers, followed by Kudos’ salt alternative. The saltier control came only fifth in the taste test. Many people complained that it was too salty.

There was a marked difference with the hot cross buns. None of the samples ranked better overall than the control with 1.7% salt on flour weight although the Fermex and Kudos products were not far behind.

"These baking results show that the addition of a flavouring additive or a blend of sodium and potassium chloride (Kudos low salt) can help replace the perceived flavour loss due to the lower salt additions," says Dr John Allen of consultants MTA Associates. "Dried sourdough powders, sourced from Northern Europe have often been used to help replace the flavour loss, but they are an acquired taste for the UK consumer. Better results can be obtained from southern European products, as can be seen from the results of the ingredients used in this test."

Of course, there are cost implications to reducing salt, which is significantly cheaper than flour, let alone salt alternatives and flavour replacers. Successful sodium reductions can be achieved, but they will come at a cost, and until the consumer can see a benefit it is questionable whether they would pay extra.

"Keys to the success of the sodium reduction campaign are for either a solid general industry-wide agreement; or provide some new additive that can replace the flavour lost associated with the salt reduction; or, as was suggested in the last issue of British Baker, replace some of the sodium chloride with potassium chloride."

So cutting salt levels is not the be-all and end-all of developing products to meet salt targets. The lesson is that there is no one-size-fits-all. Consumers’ expectations differ greatly and testing should be done on a product-by-product basis. The other lesson learned? Leave the seaweed to the fishes...


[Please see 26 February issue of British Baker for test results and recipes]