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Reducing Salt in Ready Meals

Today’s busy lifestyles leave little time to prepare meals from fresh ingredients, resulting in the popularity of ready prepared meals. However, these meals contain relatively high levels of salt and health agencies throughout the world are recommending a reduction in non-discretionary sodium from salt- and sodium-containing additives used in the manufacture of these meals.

“Sodium, or salt, is essential for life processes and is quite simply something we cannot live without! However, a substantial body of evidence now exists to suggest that high dietary sodium intake is a key factor in the rise in blood pressure with age in industrialised countries such as Ireland,” explains Dr Nigel Brunton, Teagasc Food Research Ashtown. “High blood pressure is the main cause of strokes and a major cause of heart attacks – two of the most common causes of death and illness worldwide. In Ireland, cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, stroke and related diseases, is the single biggest cause of death, accounting for 36 per cent of all deaths.”

It is currently recommended by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that Irish adults consume no more than 4 grams of salt per day. However, the average Irish adult consumes between 9 and 10 grams of salt daily. A recent survey of salt levels in ready meals conducted by Teagasc Food Research Ashtown revealed that the average Irish ready meal contained 71 per cent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for salt. In fact, 58 out of the 67 ready meals surveyed contained 50 per cent or greater of the RDA.

Alternatives to salt

In conjunction with the University of Limerick (UL), and industrial partners Dawn Fresh Foods and AllinAll Ingredients Ltd, researchers at Teagasc Food Research Ashtown are using herbs and spices as substitutes for flavour lost through the removal of salt from three popular chilled ready meals. Six herbs and spices with high antioxidant and antimicrobial activity were identified. These spices, namely clove, sage, pimento, oregano, garlic and rosemary, were then incorporated into each of the three low salt meals at four different concentrations and their acceptability determined. Herbs and spices contain potent antioxidant compounds, and thus can also improve the health-promoting profile of the meals. Initial work at Teagasc Food Research Ashtown used a trained sensory panel to conduct flavour profile analysis of popular commercial ready meals and their low salt equivalents to identify flavour differences arising from salt reduction.

Acceptability scores were used to identify the most acceptable spices and addition concentrations for each meal, and this information was used in the invention of several spice combinations. Further sensory analysis was conducted to identify the most acceptable spice combination for each meal. A final confirmation test was conducted comparing the most favoured spice combination with both the low and full salt meals to see how it performed in terms of overall acceptability.

Benefits to industry

“Results from this study can be used to significantly reduce salt levels in ready meals without influencing consumer acceptability from a flavour viewpoint,” concluded Dr Brunton.