Smelling salt tricks the brain into lower sodium diet

The breakthrough findings could pave the way for Unilever to help people improve their health by making tasty products with a lower salt content.

London (March 21, 2011) – Unilever scientists have found a new way to reduce salt from people’s diet – by tricking their brain into thinking food is saltier than it really is.

The breakthrough findings could pave the way for Unilever to help people improve their health by making tasty products with a lower salt content. Excess sodium intake has been linked to serious health problems such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

The scientists found that they could enhance people’s perception of the saltiness of their food by giving it a smell which they associated with salt.

“For several years we’ve worked hard to successfully reduce the salt content of our food products, but it’s always a delicate operation to ensure that consumers don’t ultimately turn their back on them because they don’t like the new lower salt taste,” said Johanneke Busch, Unilever Food Scientist.

“This is an exciting discovery because it might just point us to the answer to this age-old problem. If we can reduce the salt content of our products without impairing their taste, we’ll make a significant contribution to improving the health of our consumers.”

In this study, experiments were designed to understand whether people’s perception of the saltiness of food could be affected by their sense of smell, even though salt itself does not have an odour.

Participants were asked to rate the saltiness and taste intensity of cheese cubes which had each been flavoured with a different but tasteless aroma. The first two aromas were associated with common foods with a high salt content, while the third cube of cheese was flavoured with the non-salty smell of carrot. All three samples of cheese contained the same amount of salt.

The research found that participants rated the cheese which had been flavoured with sardine or comté cheese odours as significantly more salty and taste-intense than the cheese in its original state. However, the cheese which had been flavoured with carrot odour was reported to taste less salty than the original.

The Marmite to Magnum consumer goods company now plans to use this finding to reduce the salt content of its famous brands.

As part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan ( the company’s ambition is to help consumers meet the recommended level of 5g of salt per a day – based on globally recognized dietary guidelines – by reducing the salt levels in its products by a further 15-20% by 2015-2020, depending on the country.

Unilever has already significantly reduced salt levels in its products, such as in its Knorr soups and sauces. Between 2003 and 2010, up to 25% of salt has been reduced in its food products without affecting their taste or cost.

The research, which has been published in the International Dairy Journal, was carried out in partnership with the University of Bourgogne, Dijon.


Interviews with Unilever’s Research and Development team are available upon request

About Unilever

Unilever works to create a better future every day. We help people feel good, look good and get more out of life with brands and services that are good for them and good for others.

Unilever is one of the world’s leading suppliers of fast moving consumer goods with strong operations in more than 100 countries and sales in 180. Consumers buy 170bn Unilever packs around the world every year, and our products are used over two billion times a day.

Our portfolio includes some of the world’s best known and most loved brands including twelve €1 billion brands, and global leadership in many categories in which we operate. The portfolio features iconic brands such as: Knorr, Hellmann’s, Lipton, Dove, Vaseline, Persil, Cif, Marmite and Pot Noodle.

We have around 167,000 employees in over 100 countries, and generated annual sales of €44.3 billion in 2010. For more information about Unilever and its brands, please visit

Unilever is Food Industry Leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Indexes for the 12th year running. We are included in the FTSE4Good Index Series and attained a top environmental score of 5, leading to inclusion in the FTSE4Good Environmental Leaders Europe 40 Index. We are also ranked 7th in the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World, a list compiled by Corporate Knights Magazine. We achieved Platinum Plus standard in the UK’s Business in the Community Corporate Responsibility Index 2009, and were named Company of the Year in 2010.

Unilever R&D involves over 6,000 professionals, six strategic centres for global R&D and 31 major product development centres. The strategic centres are located in Trumbull, US, Port Sunlight and Colworth in the UK, Vlaardingen in The Netherlands, Bangalore in India and Shanghai in China. In 2010, our investment in R&D was €928 million.

Paul Matthews - Unilever Corporate Media Relations Manager

01372 945 925 / 0775 276 8888

Sinead Malone - Unilever R&D Comms Manager

0151 641 1413 / 07881 855354

Explore more on these topics:

Back to top


We're always looking to connect with those who share an interest in a sustainable future.


Get in touch with Unilever and specialist teams in our headquarters or find contacts around the world.

Contact us