Irish researchers at University College Cork have produced low-salt breads with a comparable shelf-life to standard breads, but they are still working on improving the flavour. One potential solution is to add sourdough as a flavour-enhancing agent.

The impetus in Ireland to reduce salt comes from health bodies, such as the World Health Organization and EU counterparts, which highlight the detrimental effect of excess salt/sodium on health. The EU has set a goal to reduce the sodium content of foods (including bread) by a minimum of 16% over four years from baseline levels in 2008. In Ireland, this translates to a target of 400mg Na/100g for white and wholemeal bread before 2012.

Since 2004, in a voluntary programme overseen by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), bakeries have been adjusting processing, ingredients and equipment to reduce salt. Irish Pride Bakeries launched three reduced-salt products, and Brennans twice launched a low-salt product. All were quickly delisted because the consumer did not like the taste.

"Research indicates that the gradual reduction of salt in all products educates the consumer’s palate," says Karl McDonald, technical executive, FSAI, which has adopted that policy. The major plant bakers, represented by the Irish Bread Bakers Association (IBBA), register targets every year with the FSAI, which spot-checks and tests products to verify compliance. The 2008-2009 target was a maximum sodium content of 450mg per 100g (1.14g salt/100g), which translates to over a 10% reduction in sodium in five years. For 2009-2010, it is 430mg per 100g.

"We are well on the way to reducing salt in bread and are often held up as an exemplar [to other food categories] of how well it can be worked," says Shane Dempsey, of the Irish Bread Bakers Association (IBBA). "But the bread bakeries are coming to a threshold where it becomes difficult to make bread with both reduced salt and of sufficient quality in a factory or a manufacturing environment." He explains that not all research can be successfully transferred from the laboratory to industrial conditions.

The FSAI recognises that bakeries may reach a "technological barrier", but says ongoing research may help create opportunities for more sodium reduction beyond that barrier.

The IBBA plant bakeries account for the lion’s share of the bread market (66% volume and 68% value), and are therefore the main focus of the salt reduction programme, as is their volume product the sliced pan. The FSAI has also had some contact with artisan, craft and other bakeries, but, says McDonald: "They make up such a small percentage of the national consumption of bread, that they are not as important in helping the overall (salt) reduction in the population."

Individual bakery companies that registered targets with the FSAI include: Allied Bakeries Ireland, Cuisine de France, Neville’s, Jinny’s, McCambridge and Stapleton’s. The latter three bake traditional Irish soda bread, which is very difficult to produce with less sodium. Stapleton’s has had NPD trials into reduced-sodium recipes and its target for 2009-2010 is to reduce sodium to 702mg per 100g.

At O’Donohue’s craft bakery in Tullamore, the levels of salt in soda bread have been reduced, but the current focus is to reduce salt in the 800g sliced pan to IBBA-agreed levels. "With soda bread there is quite a high sodium level, because of sodium bicarbonate, but not necessarily added salt," says a technical spokesperson at O’Donohue’s. "Sodium bicarbonate is critical to the process; it has the same function as yeast."

Research into sodium replacement has been explored in Ireland and, in some cases, used. The primary replacer is potassium chloride, but there are difficulties as it can leave a taste. The FSAI advice is to take salt out slowly, rather than use replacements and, to date, this remains the approach adopted by IBBA members.