The UK dairy industry's plan to achieve a 5 per cent reduction in the salt content of ripened cheese over the next 12 months, with the possibility of a further 5 per cent reduction 12 months later, has received the backing of the FSA, the UK's governmental food industry regulator.
According to the FSA, milk, cream, cheese and yellow fat spreads account for around 11 per cent of the salt content in our food intake, and cheese, together with bacon, sausages and pickles, currently appears in the FSA's "less obviously salty foods" category.
"Salt varies considerably across different cheeses so people need to look at the label," an FSA spokesperson told DairyReporter.com. Feta and Stilton, for instance, contain 3.6g and 2.0 per 100g serving respectively, while cottage cheese contains just 0.9g.
The burgeoning European trend for healthy ingredients, a waning interest in highly-processed food, together with heightened governmental and consumer lobbying to tackle diet-related health problems has coerced the UK dairy industry into taking action.
"Although many dairy products have no added salt, the UK industry felt it had to show willingness to support the FSA in its drive to reduce salt," commented Dr. Ed Komorowski, technical director for UK dairy industry association Dairy UK.
Dairy products, especially cheese, have faced an uphill struggle to overturn the common misconception that they are high in fat and can also adversely affect health.
"Although some cheese products can be high in saturated fats, they are an important source of protein and calcium in British consumers' diets. It is all about context and balance," said Rebecca Foster, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation.
The salt initiative will undoubtedly relieve some pressure on the British dairy sector and could indeed help sway the FSA away from adopting the much-hyped traffic light labelling system, where all products are categorised according to the levels of salt, fat and sugar they contain - a system which could potentially leave the dairy industry disadvantaged.
"It is extremely difficult to label food products as either good or bad," said Foster, adding that consumers could be discouraged from eating a product such as cheese on the grounds that it is high in fat and consequently miss out on essential nutrients.
British consumers consume an estimated 334,000 tons of cheese product per year, the average daily cheese consumption is 15.5g and the average salt intake is 0.3g. Nutrition advisors currently recommend that British consumers eat around one or two portions of dairy products a day.
Salt, however, still plays an integral role in cheese processing as a functional ingredient, acting as a preservative and inhibiting the growth of pathogenic or spoilage bacteria - making an absolute reduction virtually impossible.
Conversely, popular British cheese Stilton has a Protected Designated Origin (PDO) status which forbids manufacturers to alter the composition of its ingredients and Dairy UK has warned the FSA and the Department of Health that the salt reform would be "gradual", as many cheeses incur lengthy ripening periods.
Among other proposals to gain the FSA's backing include a pledge from British dairy manufacturers to make reduced salt and unsalted alternatives more readily available to consumers, while the Dairy Council and the British Cheese Board have both outlined plans for the industry to adopt a consistent and easily understood method of labelling salt content across all dairy products.