February 2020

Reducing salt – Why innovation is needed in the meat industry

For years, salt has been widely used in food products due to its beneficial effects on taste, formulation and shelf-life. However, in recent years it has been highlighted that not only as a nation, but globally, we are consuming too much salt, leading to an increase in mortality. So how is legislation, guidance and manufacturing helping to improve the health of our nation without changing the qualities we enjoy the most from our food.

In the meat industry, the main applications of salt are for processing purposes, some of which are listed below:

  •  Food preservative – When adding salt, it acts by drawing out the moisture from the food. By doing this, you are restricting the amount of moisture that is available for bacteria. Bacteria need moisture to be able to survive and reproduce, therefore, the more salt you add to food, the less bacteria will accumulate and the longer the shelf life will be. 
  • Texture enhancer – Salt has a profound effect on the gelatinisation of proteins. In processed products, salt helps retain moisture so that less saturated fat is need. Also, large salt crystals can add a crunch to the texture of a product. 
  • Flavour enhancer – Salt is one of the 5 basic tastes that we are hard-wired to detect in our foods. So, by adding salt you are making it easier to detect the naturally occurring saltiness in the food – making a more flavoursome product. Another application of salt is with its interaction with proteins. Salt can unravel (denature) the tight spiral structure of proteins, making them tastier and more aromatic. It also can improve the bitterness of products and balance out flavours such as sweet and sour. 
  • Binder – As salt helps to form protein gels, it can be used as a binding agent. This gelatinisation of proteins is what enables the burger to maintain its shape. 
  • Colour enhancer – The presence of salt helps to maintain and promote the colour of meat and prevents it from turning grey.

So, although it appears that salt is imperative to producing a good burger, what about the impact of overconsumption on public health?

Salt has many detrimental effects on health, mainly regarding hypertension (high blood pressure), which can contribute to the two leading causes of death in the UK – stroke and heart disease. Hypertension is defined as a blood pressure greater than 140/90mmHg. The overconsumption of salt upsets the delicate osmotic balance in the body, disabling the kidneys from removing extra fluid from the blood vessels. This in turn causes high blood pressure which is the basis for issues regarding stroke and heart disease (62% and 49% of cases respectively are related back to high blood pressure).

Stroke – High blood pressure can damage arteries, creating conditions where they can burst and even clog. In the cases where arteries clog, oxygen travelling to the brain is restricted, and without oxygen, cells start to die – causing stroke. As well as resulting in death, many incidences cause serious disabilities such as paralysis, memory loss and speech impediment. For some, this would mean losing their job and independence, which so many rely on.

Heart Disease – Over time, untreated high blood pressure can lead to the thickening of the heart muscle (due to the muscle having to work harder). This thickening reduces the effectiveness of the heart to pump blood around the body, and so this strain will eventually lead to complications such as heart attacks.

Public health policies and recommendations

The current salt recommendation is 6g/day which is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of salt. However, institutes such as NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), show that a further reduction is needed – halving the current recommendations to 3g/day (evidence based on results of meta-analysis).

There is also the Public Health England Salt Reduction Plan (2017) which is aimed at reducing salt in manufactured products across 80 individual categories. The progress report summarises that only 52% of the targets set were actually achieved by retailers and manufacturers. And with 80% of our daily salt intake already included in the food products we buy, there is more of a need now than ever for manufacturers to try to reduce the salt in the foods they produce.

What are Dunbia doing?

Throughout their product range, Dunbia are ensuring that the reformulation of salt inclusive products is at the heart of innovation. Whether this be by meeting FSA salt targets in processed products (such as burgers and kebabs) or by funding and working with universities to research new seasoning applications where salt can be removed from products without compromising on great taste.

Currently, Dunbia are investigating the effects of umami on reducing salt in reformed products. Umami is known as the 5th taste (alongside sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness), and is described as being savoury with characteristics of broths and cooked meats. People recognise umami through taste receptors that respond to glutamates. These are commonly found in meat broths and added to some foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG). Often umami can be confused with saltiness due to its savoury taste profile and so there is potential that it could replace salt. Collaborative research between Dunbia and Ulster University is currently underway, looking into the sensory acceptance of umami and allergen-free umami products compared to those with reduced salt. This research not only shows that Dunbia is constantly undergoing innovation but is also striving to make their products healthier and widely available to everyone.