Experts urge use of salt alternative in food products

featured imageSubstantial amounts of salt could be removed from food after the government’s scientific advisers recommended that replacing it with potassium-based equivalents instead would improve public health. A committee of experts has urged ministers to ask food producers and supermarkets to look into how they can replace sodium with what is known as “potassium-based sodium replacers”. The scientific advisory committee on nutrition (SACN) has concluded that replacing between 15% and 25% of salt (sodium chloride) in food with potassium chloride would help reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack. Potassium is a mineral that is found naturally in fruit, vegetables, pulses, milk, nuts, seeds, fish and shellfish. It has been proven to reduce high blood pressure – a key cause of heart problems – and is given to some patients as part of their recovery from cardiac surgery. SACN has spent the last four years looking into potassium-based alternatives to salt. In a report published on Wednesday, it said that while the health benefits from switching may prove “small”, substitution should still be pursued. It concluded: “Overall, at a population level, the potential benefits of using potassium-based sodium replacers to help reduce sodium in foods outweigh the potential risks. The beneficial effects at an individual level are likely to be small in size but will impact a large proportion of the population.” It added: “The government should consider encouraging food companies to explore the use of potassium-based sodium replacers to help reduce sodium levels in food.” Evidence SACN reviewed had found that greater potassium intake was associated with a “significant” reduction in someone’s risk of having high blood pressure or a stroke. Britons are still consuming more salt than is considered good for their health, despite years of government and food industry initiatives to help them cut down. Public Health England says that no one should consume more than six grams a day, but its own research has found that while average daily intake has fallen since 2005, it was still at eight grams. Food campaigners want ministers to use SACN’s findings to lobby food firms to reduce what they view as their unnecessary addition of excessive amounts of salt to many of their products. “Salt is unnaturally added to food in huge amounts and is putting up our blood pressure. Conversely, potassium is contained naturally in fruit and veg and lowers our blood pressure,” said Katharine Jenner, the campaign director at Consensus Action on Salt and Health. “This advice will pave the way for thousands of food [manufacturers] to lower their salt levels[in products], whilst still being tasty and safe to eat. What’s more, it will stop thousands of people suffering and dying unnecessarily from strokes and heart disease.” SACN, working alongside experts from the committee on toxicity in food, consumer products and the environment (COT), found that the main risk from increasing potassium content was that it could lead to “an increase in fatal and life-threatening hyperkalaemia in individuals with previously undiagnosed chronic renal [kidney] impairment”.
Despite that, though, replacing up to a quarter of all salt with potassium chloride “would result in overall benefit to the general population of the UK”, SACN ruled. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents manufacturers , welcomed the outcome of SACN’s review, which it instigated in 2013 by urging ministers to review the advice they give food firms on the use of potassium-based salt alternatives. An FDF spokesperson said: “The report gives a green light to the use of potassium, which provides companies with another tool they can use as they continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in salt reformulation. “Voluntary action by companies has helped to reduce adult intakes of salt by 11% between 2005-06 and 2014, demonstrating our long–standing commitment to this work, without compromising on taste, quality or safety.”  This article was amended on 23 November 2017. An earlier version said that the Food and Drink Federation represents manufacturers and retailers. The organization represents manufacturers only.