As comfort food goes, few things are as satisfying as fresh bread. There’s something about the soft, fluffy, slightly chewy texture that we all crave. Maybe it’s because humans have been making bread for over 14,000 years. The history of humankind and the history of bread are interwoven through the ages.
Recently, the primal appeal of bread led to the popularity of “lockdown sourdough” as people turned to breadmaking as a way of coping with the boredom and stress of the pandemic. At one point, this trend led to supermarket shelves cleared of flour as enthusiastic home bakers exhausted all supplies.
These days, most of us would struggle to find the time to do our own baking. We now rely on food manufacturers for our daily bread. But the bread making processes of today have come a long way from the simple traditional loaf of flour, salt, water and yeast.
But while the modern manufactured bread loaf is very different to its predecessors, bread is still largely regarded as healthy and wholesome. In fact, today’s bread and bakery goods are heavily processed foods with many of the same nutritional challenges of other processed foods. And this includes high sodium.
The Salty Truth
Salt plays a crucial role in the chemistry of bread baking. Because the amount of salt in a recipe affects yeast growth and the viscosity of gluten, salt contributes to the texture of the final product. It also contributes to masking off-flavours and has a crucial impact on shelf life.
But many bread and bakery goods contain much more than just the salt required to ensure the correct texture, flavour and shelf life.
The fact is that bread can be very high in sodium. How high? In the US, bread is the top contributor of dietary sodium above all other foods. One slice of some white bread has a sodium level equivalent to eating a small bag of potato chips. That’s a lot of salt!
If you’re starting your day with two slices of toasted wholemeal brown bread, before you’ve put any spread on it, you already have 720 mg of salt on your plate. Other popular breakfast bakery goods like English muffins and crumpets can be even saltier. Two English muffins contain 1,000 mg of sodium, and a single crumpet has 810 mg.
Bagels have always been popular in New York, but they’ve long since gone mainstream in the US, and picked up new fans around the world too. Whether plain, whole wheat, or sweet, bagels have just as much or more salt than bread. Some flavours can have truly eye-watering levels of salt. For example, the popular “everything bagel”, which is coated with a variety of seasonings, including poppy and sesame seeds. A typical everything bagel contains a whopping 1,610 mg of sodium – which is two-thirds of the recommended daily intake.
At lunchtime, fresh or toasted sandwiches are frequently the go-to option, easy to pick up from our local coffee shop, convenience store, or fast-food outlet. The most popular sandwich chain offers a wide selection of breads for customers to choose from. The average sodium content in one of their 6” bread portions is 478 mg. One of these, a healthy-sounding “roasted garlic” flavour comes in at 1,230 mg. A foot-long serving would be nearly 2.5 g of sodium, which exceeds the maximum daily intake recommended by the World Health Organization.
Different Shapes, Same Problem
While the sliced loaf still rules the supermarket shelves, other bread types are popular too. Pitta bread, a staple of the Middle Eastern diet, has become a regular in US and European shops, along with its frequent companion, hummus.
The Mediterranean-style flatbread is another format that’s caught on in popularity. So how do these variations compare to the humble slice of white?
Although these Middle Eastern style breads are often associated with the healthy “Mediterranean diet”, just like their Western counterparts, these breads are extremely high in sodium.
One study found that flat breads had the highest average sodium of all breads analysed. The worst was a chapatti-style flat bread with 2.3g of salt per 100g. That’s 1,380 mg in a single piece. In another study that investigated dietary sodium in the Eastern Mediterranean region, bread was found to contribute up to a third of daily salt intake. This WHO study concluded by calling for limits on the salt content in Arabic breads like pitta.
But what if your sandwich isn’t a sandwich? Wraps and Tex-Mex style food are increasing in popularity; and chain restaurants like Taco Bell and Chipotle have expanded beyond North America to Europe, South America, and even some parts of Asia. The flour tortillas that feature on the menu are soft, thin flatbreads. Whether you buy wraps or tortillas in the supermarket, or get one in a restaurant, the sodium content is very similar to bread, with one tortilla averaging 360 mg. The salt in one tortilla from a leading supermarket brand is 410 mg.
Other Baked Goods
For many consumers, in Europe, as well as in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, savoury bakery goods are a favourite choice for lunch or a snack on the go. Of these, sausage rolls are a top seller.
A lot of attention has been placed on the nutritional value of the filling of these rolls, and recently a vegan option was introduced for those looking for a healthier choice. Regardless of the filling, the puff pastry shell alone contains about 100 mg of sodium.
Another baked item on the menu for many are savoury pies and pasties, usually filled with beef or chicken. Like sausage rolls, these are made with puff or shortcrust pastry. The salt in the crust of just one of these products can be as high as 400 mg.
Healthier Bakery Trends
The growing market for healthier food choices has produced a variety of whole-grain and multi-grain breads. These are often labelled with wholesome names like “granary” or “farmhouse” to emphasise their healthy qualities.
While most of these have more fibre and protein than plain white bread, when it comes to salt content, they are often just as high. One leading supermarket brand’s multiseed loaf contains 600 mg of salt per slice! Other wholegrain loaves ranged between 200-410 mg per slice, putting them in the same sodium range as white bread.
Many consumers looking for a healthier option will automatically reach for the darker coloured breads, as these are associated with wholegrain goodness. Breads like rye, sourdough, and the popular “tiger loaf” pumpernickel mix, are favoured by the health-conscious shopper. But surprisingly, researchers found some of the highest sodium levels in these breads. A dark rye was found to have 1,200 mg of salt in a single slice, and a wholemeal sourdough had 1,875 mg of salt per 30 g slice.
Gluten-free bakery products are another newcomer to our shelves. While some consumers choose gluten-free because of health conditions, many others believe them to be a healthier option than wheat flour products. These so-called “lifestyle” gluten-free consumers seek out gluten-free breads and bakery goods as part of a diet that often includes organic and other “free-from” foods.
Unfortunately, gluten-free products are often not the healthier choice when it comes to salt. Most have about the same levels of sodium as wheat-based products. One leading supermarket’s own seeded gluten-free bread has 560 mg of salt per slice, one of the higher levels we’ve seen.
A Smart Way to Slice the Sodium
So how can we as food manufacturers make bread healthier without ruining the flavour and function experience?
This is a challenge that many have tried to solve. Market studies have also been done on whether reducing salt in bread will lead people to simply choose saltier fillings to compensate. Recently, the WHO released new global benchmarks to improve public health. In these, it recommends a new standard of 330 mg of sodium per 100 g. That means each 30 g slice should contain no more than 99 mg of sodium.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way to achieve lower-sodium goals in bread and keep flavour, function and shelf life. Done simply by reformulating with Saltwell in place of your standard PDV salt. Saltwell contains 35% less sodium than traditional salt and functions just the same. It delivers a significant reduction in sodium for bakery goods, while providing the same salty flavour
In fact, natural low-sodium sea salt not only provides less sodium and does not affect the taste profile, but contains lots of essential trace minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, and other nutrients the body requires. And because it’s an all-natural sea salt, Saltwell supports your clean label requirements. Perfect for creating a healthier choice for consumers of your bread products.