Over the past decade or so, Brits have been consuming less and less salt, though quite often they don’t even realise it. Now, however, it seems that government regulation of salt in mass-market processed food products has reached the point where it’s in poor taste. In this context the phrase doesn’t refer to unseemly behaviour; rather it’s the taste of certain foods that has begun putting people off.
A case in point is the episode reported recently when a Michelin-star chef, Marco Pierrre White, sent a plate of sausage and mash back to the kitchen at The Hansom Crab pub in London. White said he first thought the sausages were ‘off’, but discovered it was the sauce instead. In fact it was the iconic and beloved HP sauce whose flavour had changed for the worse – much worse, according to the irate chef.
It turned out the recipe has been altered to lower the salt content, and now it tastes “disgusting”.
The government’s salt reduction targets for 2012 published in May of this year are ‘challenging’, according to FSA’s Head of Nutrition, Rosemary Hignett. She said the new targets would have a significant impact on British consumption of salt, and the accompanying decrease in health problems due to high sodium levels. The responsibility for monitoring public nutrition now belongs to the Department of Health.
A list of 80 categories of food that includes many common comestibles has been drawn up, and progress has been made already. The salt intake of the average Brit has been reduced from 9.7g per day in 2001 to 8.6g in 2008, but the target now is 6g per day, so there’s a long way to go, and there are more problems than just the taste. Salt is used as a preservative in many processed foods, so safety is also a major factor in the equation.
The British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation have drawn up their own list of eight specific foods that won’t conform easily to the less-salt scenario. Bacon, sausages, soft cheeses and sauces such as pesto (and of course HP) will, according to their research, suffer from the lack of salt, both in taste and in shelf life and safety. There’s also the likelihood that reducing salt content from the manufacturer will only result in more people adding salt after their food is on the table.
Health-wise, it’s the consumer who benefits from eating less salt, but suppliers of the big retail food chains that signed up for the voluntary reduction, such as Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s amongst others, are going to have difficulties meeting the targets set out. Most butchers and the makers of soft cheeses such as Stilton, for example, use salt as an essential ingredient whose lack poses safety hazards as well as taste deficit.
Critics of the government’s programme have offered a couple of alternatives to the salt problem. Consumers might refrain from adding large dollops of ketchup and beans loaded with salt to their fry-ups, and other seasonings like black pepper add a lot of flavour without putting an extra strain on the heart.