Bakery products account for up to 20% of average daily intake of the chemical NaC1 or salt, to use its street name.

As the government and lobbyists view that particular substance as a major threat to public health, so the baking industry remains the target of an ongoing public health campaign. The percentage of salt used in baked bread has already been reduced from 1.5g of salt 10 years ago to 1.1g now, with further reductions to 1g pledged. However, influential lobby group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) is pressing for new targets for 2014 of below 0.8g salt per 100g.

Processing issues have long been cited by bakers as the key challenge in reducing salt in dough. So what is the current state of play? Well, from a machinery point of view, suppliers have already cracked the technical issues, says Stan Cauvain, consultant at Baketran and Food Standards Agency advisor on salt in bakery. But that does not mean that low-salt doughs no longer present problems, he adds. The main issue is that they are much more demanding and less forgiving, when they are processed than higher-salt doughs.

"You need closer process control in processing low-salt doughs," says Cauvain. "Closely monitoring the dough temperature is vital and you have to ensure optimum water levels. You have lost a lot of tolerance in the process, so a small delay in the plant will have much greater consequences than 10 years ago."

Equipment costs

The costs of replacing equipment better-suited to processing lower-salt doughs is perhaps £50,000 to £100,000 for a production line. That means many industrial bakers continue to delay the expenditure and modify old plant instead often a false economy. "The biggest problem with older production lines is processing speed they tend to run too fast with too high a shear rate, which means low-salt doughs become sticky. With the newer stress-free production lines of the last five to 10 years, this problem is addressed," says Cauvain.

The other downsides associated with using low-salt doughs remain below the radar, he says. Wastage rates have gone up as a consequence of using low-salt doughs; for example, a technical breakdown leading to a delay in an order for 10,000 units may mean you have to throw away 2,000 units, which would have survived with higher salt levels in the dough. Cauvain comments: "There is the cost of the ingredients to consider and also the energy costs of making up the batch. People have not thought enough about these considerations when setting these salt reduction targets."

So there is a strong economic argument for investing in up-to-date machinery, as suppliers readily agree. Keith Stalker, MD of European Process Plant, which supplies, installs and maintains König plant in Britain and Ireland, says that König bread roll plants have no problem in handling dough with sodium levels of 0.3g per 100g, which CASH is now calling for, or those with even lower salt levels. Stalker says: "Sticky doughs do not pose problems for König dividing equipment. The stickiest doughs encountered are found in Asia and in some EU markets, such as Germany and Spain. König designs and produces roll plants that handle all these doughs very well, including those with a hydration level of up to 70%."

Richard Tearle, general manager at Rondo, says that Rondo’s Smartline product is gentle and tension-free. "It is flexible and can process a whole range of different doughs with up to 70-80% water, so salt reduction has not been a major problem for us," he says. "We started working on the product six or seven years ago, and salt reduction was on the agenda then, so the designers would have taken these sort of issues into account."

When salt levels are being reduced, the software can be altered, he says, emphasising that the main issue is lack of capital to invest in new dough-friendly equipment. "People are still finding it difficult to borrow money at sensible rates. We have got customers that would like to invest, but have not been able to borrow the funds to do so."

Duncan MacFarlane, sales director of Scobie & McIntosh, paints a similar picture: "Our machines have always handled these sorts of doughs. We do a lot of softer European doughs with a higher liquid content of 68-70%. We can run doughs with no salt. We have not had the problems we thought we might with salt levels."

Ken Mossford, MD of Reiser UK, also says that dealing with reduced-salt doughs is not a problem. Reiser’s Vemag Dough Dividing system uses a different method for extruding the dough from normal ram and shear systems. "This is also a big advantage for our machine when portioning low-salt doughs, which tend to be stickier and harder to handle."

The numbers also stack up, he says. The Vemag Dough Divider does not need the oil used in normal dividing systems, which means huge savings for a bakery. It can also control the weight accuracy, reducing giveaway, and normally it can run at higher speeds.

Meanwhile, David Marsh, MD of Benier, says salt reduction in bread is only one of many issues that affect the wetness and stickiness of dough. Issues such as lower-quality flours, the addition of water and over-processing can lead to a rise in dough temperature, which makes the dough difficult to handle. Marsh comments: "We already supply equipment worldwide which deals with doughs with a ’stickiness factor’ far beyond that commonly found in UK bakeries. However, many of the solutions available are not already sitting in the UK bakery sector. If doughs were to become stickier, either through the quality of affordable flour available or through recipe changes such as the significant reduction of salt, then such changes will force additional investment from those manufacturers not willing to suffer reductions in efficiency."

The main problems occur when the dough is being divided and transported from mixer to divider and from divider to oven, he says. Benier’s Dough Master has been developed specifically to enable the gentle process of doughs with long fermentation times, reduced salt and high water content, thereby reducing stress and stickiness.

Mandy Hart, marketing director at supplier Marco, also states that, with low-salt doughs, it is all the more vital to control the baking process and keep measurements accurate. Marco offers recipe control systems, which reduce the potential for human error in putting together recipe batches.

"You have consistency of product, which is very important to retailers. And you are not wasting product. As an example, this type of system would ensure that if a target weight for salt was set against a particular bread dough, the correct amount is added using a simple visual system, where a green light means they have reached the correct weight. The system would also monitor and log each weighing against an identified operator, ensuring that ingredients for a given recipe are added in the right order and in the correct volume."

Clearly, this level of accuracy pays various dividends for the baker. Formulations can be updated at the mixing stage if too much or too little of an ingredient is added, cutting wastage. The exact amount of ingredient required can be used, trimming down the costs of a recipe to the minimum.

Investment in up-to-date processing equipment that can handle lower salt doughs pays off in many ways, Stalker of EPP says. For example, last month, EPP supplied and installed a König Combi Line at Dundee’s Teviotdale Bakery, a large wholesale operation. Owner Graham Cuthbert comments: "The new line has made it possible for us to automatically produce a much larger range, which, of course, is beneficial in helping to control labour costs. Added to this, because the plant allows us to use doughs with a higher water content than previously, we’ve already increased yield by 6% and that’s just during the commissioning phase. I have every confidence that we will achieve 10%."

So perhaps the health watchdogs can be thanked for making baking a more efficient process by pushing the industry to use lower-salt doughs. But whether anyone would buy bread with only a trace of NaC1 is another question.