WASHINGTON — The potential for the baking industry to reduce sodium content significantly in bread and rolls is promising, said Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of government relations and public affairs at the American Bakers Association.

Reviewing work done by the Food, Technical, and Regulatory Affairs Committee of the A.B.A., Ms. Sanders said, “There are indications sodium content can be cut gradually 20% to 25% without having major impact on consumer acceptance. The committee believes that may be a good direction to move.”

When asked how the A.B.A. arrived at the 20% to 25% reduction range opportunities, Ms. Sanders said it was a rough estimate based on market analysis and added prospective cuts vary widely by product.

“It’s hard to make a blanket statement,” she said. “But I’m confident that incremental reductions are possible because there are other products that are already fairly low in sodium in the baking market.”

On a worldwide basis, the current target for acceptable sodium level for bread is 400 mg per 100 grams of product (about four slices), with a “stretch” target of 350, Ms. Sanders said.

“That’s generally accepted as a good number, the level people use as a guide,” she said. “In the U.K., 400 is the established target, and they plan to reduce it further in the future to 350.”

To assess where things stand currently in the United States, FTRAC conducted a market review of several different bread and other baked foods stock-keeping units. What struck the committee was the wide variation in sodium content from product to product. The observation also raised optimism that cuts may be possible and also suggested an approach for which products should be identified first for reduction.

“Based on our market review, if you look at bread and rolls in the United States, they range from 350 mg on the low end to more than 700 on the high end,” Ms. Sanders said. “You may think that’s because bagels and rye bread are going to be higher, but there also are bagels and rye in the lower 400 range.

“What the industry can do and should continue to look at is if they have products that are significantly higher than 400 mg per 100 grams, they can consider steady incremental reduction. There is no technical challenge to doing that. The data suggest you don’t need 700 mg to make products acceptable. When discussed at FTRAC meetings, the group has agreed that this approach makes perfect sense.”

As an aside, Ms. Sanders observed that currently not many bread products are marketed as low sodium.

“It would need to be beneath 140 mg per slice (or 280 per 100 grams) to qualify as a low sodium product,” she said.

Discussing the sodium issue over the past year, the A.B.A. position has been to emphasize that sodium content in baked foods already has been lowered considerably over the past generation, that bread products are not a major sodium source on a per serving basis and that salt plays an important functional role in bread.

Ms. Sanders said that while grain-based foods should not be unfairly targeted as a high-sodium food group, she added that this position does not mean further cuts are impossible.

“What A.B.A. has said in the past is we need to be careful because sodium is important for the baking process,” she said. “It is arguably impactful on food safety, because it changes the water activity making mold less likely. It also has a very big impact on the flavor and texture of the loaf. That has been our consistent message.”
Pushing sodium content too low would be problematic, Ms. Sanders said.

“If you took a loaf with 350 on the low end and tried to cut the sodium, that would be a technical challenge,” she said. “The product would lose acceptability to the consumer, and you could have trouble making the loaf of bread. FTRAC members are asking, ‘Why not target reductions in high sodium bread rather than trying to do something that is technically far more difficult?’ They believe if the industry works together on reductions generally, it becomes less of a competitive risk for everyone and more of a generally recognized practice.”

Asked about alternatives to sodium, Ms. Sanders said bakers believe no good substitutes for salt in bread currently exist.

“The alternatives either taste terrible, based on potassium, or they cost a fortune, or both,” she said. “So there really isn’t a good technical and practical option.”

Ignoring the sodium issue entirely would not be wise for the baking industry, Ms. Sanders said.

“The committee feels a lot of pressure to reduce,” she said. “It’s coming from all directions — consumer groups, public health organizations, the Institute of Medicine and government on all levels. So there is a belief we need to act.

“What’s interesting is that there is no evidence that high sodium intake has an impact on the blood pressure of a healthy person. If you already are hypertensive, there is evidence it affects blood pressure. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines point out that a third of the country is hypertensive or pre-hypertensive.”

While confident overall that there are good opportunities for sodium levels in baked foods to be reduced, Ms. Sanders said there will be exceptions.

“At the end of the day, there will be products that will be differentiated by their saltiness,” she said. “Are we going to stop putting salt on pretzels? I don’t think so. It is a characteristic. It will be based on the consumers’ preferences and desires.”