Americans love salt. Despite public health efforts to encourage people to cut back on sodium, they now consume about 3,400mg per day, nearly 50 percent more than the 2,300-mg limit recommended by the FDA's guidelines issued last June. "Experts at the Institute of Medicine have concluded that reducing sodium intake to 2,300mg per day can significantly help reduce blood pressure and ultimately prevent hundreds of thousands of premature illnesses and deaths," explains Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
"Because the majority of sodium in our diets comes from processed and prepared foods, consumers are challenged in lowering their sodium intake themselves."
The FDA guidance recommends goals for sodium chloride reduction in more than 150 food categories and will allow companies to measure their actions against transparent and verifiable measures. The lower recommended amount will also soon be carried on the revised 2018 Nutrition Facts panels.
Though salt is essential and makes foods tastier and more flavorful, more consumers are recognizing its dangers. Thus, for nearly a decade, food and beverage manufacturers have been hunting for ingredients such as potassium chloride, natural flavor enhancers, masking agents, sea salt crystals and other salt replacers to lower sodium in foods and replicate many of its benefits.
But it's not all that straightforward, as salt plays an important role not just in taste but in food preservation and processability. Salt denatures proteins, can stabilize the leavening process, is antimicrobial and reduces the need for artificial solutions to food safety and health requirements -- all things no other single ingredient can do.
Also, salt alternatives usually command price premiums over cost-effective sodium chloride.
"Removing or reducing salt can affect the texture or mouthfeel of a finished product," says Roger Lane, marketing manager of savory flavors at Sensient Flavors & Fragrances (www.sensientflavorsandfragrances.com), Hoffman Estates, Ill. "Consumers believe low sodium equals low flavor, so reducing sodium in a non-perceptible way is challenging. And salt is one of the least expensive ingredients outside of water in any formulation, so there will [likely] be a cost increase when using substitutes."
Some manufacturers have been more successful at reducing sodium than others. Mars, which makes Uncle Ben's rice, said it reduced sodium in its products by 25 percent from 2007 to 2012 and plans to reduce it further by another 20 percent by 2021. General Mills says it has reduced sodium in more than 350 products.
Name change may help
One challenge is minimizing sodium in meat. Meat processors have been asking ingredient suppliers for salt options that can enhance meat's flavor, preserve it and make it more succulent. In low-sodium/savory formulations, they've found potassium chloride can keep meat tender and juicy and act as a preservative. The salt replacer also is a great substitute for a small group of consumers deficient in potassium, and was developed specifically as such.
Researchers at Unilever (which owns brands like Hellmann's, Knorr and Ben and Jerry's) published a peer-reviewed academic journal article in April 2016, concluding that potassium chloride is a "valuable, safe replacer" for sodium chloride. The scientists expect more of the company's food products will incorporate potassium chloride, gradually weaning consumers off of higher sodium levels. The main problem is potassium chloride's slightly bitter/metallic taste, which can be masked by umami-rich replacer products.
To ease consumer confusion and distrust of the potassium chloride moniker, Campbell Soup (www.campbells.com), Camden, N.J. (which has developed 25-percent lower-sodium soups), and more than 15 other food manufacturers, have backed a citizen’s petition from NuTek Food Science (nuteksalt.com), Minnetonka, Minn., asking the FDA to allow "potassium salt" be used as an alternate name for potassium chloride on food labels. NuTek, a producer of potassium chloride and other salt substitutes, filed the petition with the FDA in June 2016, emphasizing that "many consumers are confused and/or misled by the name potassium chloride" and they "mis-associate it with chlorine or other chemicals."
The timing is good for this name change push, as food processors start updating Nutrition Facts panels to meet next year's deadline. "Potassium salt is something consumers immediately understand and embrace," points out Brian Boor, NuTek's president and COO. "Especially when they know sodium is over-consumed and potassium is under-consumed. Some foods contain an unnecessary level of sodium, and simple sodium removal can occur without dramatically impacting these attributes.
"We must have some level of sodium chloride – or an alternative chloride salt – it's essential," he continues. "In most instances, elimination is impossible. Without salt, the vast majority of bakery items simply could not be produced. There's a need for consumer education about processing and technology advancements related to sodium reduction. This name change will drive consumer education and understanding that's much needed and requested."
Formulators use spices and spice blends both to replace some salt and to mask the taste of substitutes. McCormick (www.mccormick.com), Sparks, Md., has a large line of Perfect Pinch spice blends, for example. Soy and other sauces, yeast extracts and monosodium glutamate have been used to enhance and brighten foods. Sensient's Umami Natural clean-label flavor enhancer consists of a blend of dehydrated vegetables that can be used to provide a flavor boost, Lane says.
Flavor houses offer customized masking solutions for reduced-sodium products. Saltiness can even be influenced by vinegar, which studies show either enhances or suppresses the perception of salt, depending on the concentration, notes Esmond Joseph, R&D director for Mizkan America (www.mizkan.com), Mt. Prospect, Ill. "Vinegar possesses some of the characteristics of salt (acidic, tangy and sour), and if used at the right concentration in a dressing, sauce or flavor base, can lead to the reduction of the overall salt level," he says. "It also increases microbial stability, because of its high acidity. Increasing acids decreases the overall pH of a product or formulation. Companies are also exploring herbs, lemon, yeast extracts and various cooking techniques such as roasting and stewing to help concentrate flavor without adding salt."
Jean Shieh, marketing manager at Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, Calif., says don't forget umami. "It's found naturally in meat, fish, dairy and many vegetables," she says. "To compensate for a reduction in a salty taste, the most natural way might be to boost the umami taste to brighten up the remaining tastes and round out the overall flavor profile."
Sensient's sodium reduction solutions are designed to remove a portion of the sodium while maintaining a saltiness perception. SensaSalt yeast extracts contain high 5' nucleotides to enhance specific flavors of a product while reducing sodium levels by 33 to 50 percent, adds Lane.
Salt icon Morton Salt (www.mortonsalt.com), Chicago, offers a range of salt alternatives such as KaliSel high-purity potassium chloride, used as a taste enhancer, processing agent, stabilizer, gelling agent and preservative. Morton Lite Salt Mixture is a 50/50 blend of salt and potassium chloride, and Morton also makes topping salts that help reduce sodium in snacks. "Our food-grade dendritic salt, Star Flake, is a powdery, fine-grain crystallized version, formed in porous, star-shaped modified cubes," says Denise Lauer, director of communications & corporate brand strategy. "It imparts a rapid saline taste that can be used in cracker applications. Often, when salt is reduced, two or three ingredients may have to compensate. The product developer may have to reduce the cost of other ingredients if cost parity is needed."
Lauer admits, no single substitute ingredient works effectively in all food applications. "There's no magic bullet. But alternatives such as potassium chloride can help consumers increase potassium in their diets along with other sources such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products."