Salt reduction in processed foods

Most people consume too much salt—on average over 8 grams per day, or around twice the recommended maximum level of intake as reported by the World Health Organization.

Unsurprisingly therefore, one of the hot topics in the world of healthy eating is the reduction of salt in processed, pre-packaged foods. This is of course a good thing, as evidence shows that reducing the amount of salt consumed can have major health benefits including reducing high blood pressure.

The first salt reduction targets were set by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) back in 2006, with multiple revisions being published subsequently. The most recent targets were set in 2017 and published by Public Health England, stipulating that retailers and manufacturers had to meet set levels of salt in food products and drinks across 28 categories. In the report published by Public Health England 2017, they stipulated that: “ <…> This should be achieved without increasing the levels of saturated fat within a product and, where possible, be accompanied by calorie reduction <…>”

This is a very important proviso. Generally speaking, in order to reduce one ingredient in a product, it needs to be replaced by another. Sometimes the replacement ingredient is just as bad for health as the one that has been removed.

How salt reduction in processed food is tackled  

Assume a pizza is made up of 100 units. Say that twenty of these units equate to salt. You remove ten units of salt and are left with ten units to make up, otherwise you don’t have a whole product anymore. In this instance, manufacturers will often reach for sugar or saturated fats to replace these missing units. 

Public Health England is proudly proclaiming that it has been successfully reducing salt levels in foods by removing these units (which very technically speaking, they are). However, experts say that contradictory evidence speaks to the immense difficulty of reformulating packaged foods, with many manufacturers struggling to make foods healthier while also maintaining low price and taste. While retailers and manufacturers may be meeting one specific nutritional goal, it is not clear whether these foods are in fact healthier overall.

The desired outcome of these government-led campaigns, such as the salt and sugar reduction movement, are to improve public health. However, if the general public and consumers of these products aren’t educated to help them understand the implications of buying products with ingredients removed and replaced with something else, in the long run it isn’t going to work.

Seeking alternatives to low salt, low fat and low sugar products

A growing trend amongst the online health community is rejecting these so labelled ‘healthier products’ and reaching for the previously demonised full fat/sugar/salt versions as the rationale is  it’s much easier (and healthier) to keep track of what you’re putting into your body, if you know from the outset what’s actually in the product.

Food industry insiders recommend that the best way to develop a nutritious product is to focus on using fewer ingredients and moderate amounts of salt, sugar and fat. Otherwise, what it comes down to is that one bad ingredient is merely being swapped for another. It’s something which all food manufacturers and retailers need to take on board as public education and demand for healthier, transparent foods are on the rise, this will impact not only the public health, but sales.

What are UK supermarkets doing to reduce salt within own brand products?

This area is ripe for retailers to take advantage of in promoting their own products. Tesco currently has an impressive ‘Helpful Little Swaps’ initiative in which they advertise healthier options for shoppers to choose from. However, out of 16 items in the low-salt range, only one item (ketchup) is from the Tesco own brand range. These types of initiatives are a prime example of where retailers could utilise the current landscape to capitalise and endorse their own label products. 

Drive action: Meeting targets for salt reduction and ongoing product innovation

To make successful recipe changes and develop innovative products, retailers need to collaborate with their own brand suppliers. Suppliers are the product experts and have a wealth of expertise that they can draw on to create products that differentiate your brand from its competitors.

True collaboration is of course easier said than done. We write a lot about the virtues of Supplier Engagement to mobilise suppliers to act on meeting government targets and supplying the correct information about their products to create a paper trail of compliance.

Supplier engagement also helps you to harness the expertise and passion of your suppliers and empowers them to deliver what you need when you need it - something you can't do without in the new world of ‘do more-with-less’ product development.

We work with numerous retailers on advanced data collection campaigns and have ran many complex managed surveys to collect and analyse specific product information for both market initiatives and internal projects.

For some practical advice on running a data collection campaign, take a look at our blog about guaranteeing success in a data collection campaign.

The benefits of using product dashboards for keeping all product data in one place

When collecting data about own brand products, it is essential that this information is collected in one central place, rather than being held in a silo (aka an Excel spreadsheet). We create dashboards for our clients in our Affinity™ platform which allows them to visualise and analyse all the data about their products in a single user-friendly view.

Crucially, a dashboard can be shared with other members of the retail team and suppliers. This is not necessarily about giving people access to more data, it’s about consolidation of existing data to give more insights which can be acted upon. As well as feeding in in-house product tests and benchmarking results, the dashboard can also pull in external product feedback such as online reviews, social media comments, call centre feedback etc.

Applying this way of working to keeping product salt levels in check

Here's an example of how shared dashboards and consolidated product information and feedback can support making informed decisions on reformulations relating to salt or indeed sugar, fat etc:

Routine product testing identifies that a product contains a little too much salt. The amount doesn’t mean that the item now contravenes government salt targets, but action does need to be taken.

Using the dashboard, the team spots an increase in complaints about the product and that the trend in social media feedback is related to seasoning. This triggers the team to look at this in more detail than they ordinarily would have.

The online ratings are also in the dashboard and although mostly positive and at least 3-stars, the written feedback includes comments stating that the product is “saltier” than the competitor’s equivalent product.

The result of this holistic dashboard view of product data and feedback is that the team are placing more priority on investigation and the product manager is considering whether some product development is required.

Empowering suppliers to meet product targets

The key with Affinity is that we combine the pillars of Supplier Engagement (communication, transparency and support) within the tool. A KPI dashboard can inform the specific objectives and show which products conform to policy or to specific targets. But, in order to drive action by suppliers, access to the information needs to be supplemented with the support to enable suppliers to make changes.

A crucial element in the success Affinity has brought on projects such as salt reduction, is that the dashboards link to help information such as videos and FAQs, providing guidance on how suppliers can improve. The objective is to guide and empower suppliers.

Beyond this, product level surveys allow suppliers to easily confirm the status or actions on products or take the opportunity to drive change. All of these supplier-retailer interactions are tracked, providing visibility and understanding of where more support or engagement is required.  It is a virtuous circle.


Shoppers are increasingly aware of the need to reduce additives such as salt from their diets. As legislation brings in compulsory targets, the challenge for retailers and manufacturers is what to replace these ingredients with as alternatives can be just as unhealthy.

The movement towards clean labelling - where products have fewer ingredients - is an opportunity for own brand retailers to get ahead by developing ranges that contain fewer ingredients overall and no bad swaps (e.g. fat for sugar).

To achieve this, it is necessary for retailers to collaborate on product innovation with their own brand suppliers. Suppliers are the experts in their products and may have some great ideas for developing healthy products that consumers will choose over the national brand equivalent.

Customer feedback arrives at the retailer via many channels (online reviews, social media, call centres etc) and key themes can get lost in the noise. By pulling this feedback into a product dashboard alongside in-house testing can provide actionable insights for the retail team and supplier.

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Josie Burt

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