Salt has many attributes and uses when it comes to food. It has the ability to enhance desirable flavors in food and recipes, while also diminishing the ability to detect undesirable flavors. For example, adding a small amount of salt to baked goods enhances their sweetness and adding a sprinkle of salt to a grapefruit can mask the bitter grapefruit note. According to the National Academy of Sciences, salt also has the ability to promote the perception of product thickness and round out overall flavor while improving flavor intensity. However, even with all the positive attributes of salt, there is still a demand to reduce its use in food products due to its contribution to the amount of sodium in a diet.
Explore this issueFebruary/March 2017
The CDC states that as sodium intake increases, so does blood pressure, which in turn increases an individual’s risk for heart disease and stroke. For this reason, sodium intake has been on the radar of health professionals, the food industry, and consumers for quite some time. Despite this awareness, the CDC reports that in 2016 the average daily sodium intake among individuals aged two-years and older in the U.S. was more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) per day. This is significantly higher than the 2,300 mg per day recommendation in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Today, the main source of sodium in the American diet comes from salt found in restaurant and processed foods. Salt has a positive impact on how food tastes while also being a relatively inexpensive ingredient to use. This makes using salt an easy preference when developing products. Restaurant and processed foods provide a convenience factor to the consumer who does not always have time to prepare meals at home; consumers prefer something that is quick and easy, but also tastes great. This, of course, will lead product development teams throughout the U.S. attempting to balance between providing a great tasting product and providing a healthier food option to its consumers.
However, due to the consumer pushback, alternatives need to be considered. Fortunately, there are several ways that product developers can approach reducing the use of traditional salt and in turn reduce sodium levels while still developing a flavorful product.
Tactics for Reducing Sodium
Incremental formulation changes. One of the simplest ways to reduce the level of sodium in a product is to simply remove a portion of the salt from the food product at a rate that would not likely be detected by a typical consumer. This idea can be used for an existing product in the marketplace. For instance, studies have shown that consumers were not likely to detect a difference when sodium was reduced by 10 percent in their bread. However, they were able to detect a difference when sodium was reduced at 20 and 30 percent. Food manufacturers can use this knowledge and the knowledge of their product to make a one-time formulation change to reduce the salt to a level consumers may not notice.
Another way to use the reduction concept is to reduce salt in a product gradually over a period of time. For example, if a company has a goal to reduce sodium in its product by 30 percent, it likely would not want to make the entire 30 percent reduction with one formulation change as regular consumers could detect a difference. To minimize the likelihood of consumers detecting a difference while still meeting the goal of a 30 percent reduction, the manufacturer can first launch a product with 10 percent less salt and let the consumer acclimate to the new salt level. After a period of time, it can move forward with another 10 percent reduction and continue this process until it hits the desired salt reduction goal.
Salt substitutes. A second approach product development teams can use to reduce sodium in their product is to use a potassium-based salt instead of a sodium-based salt. Potassium chloride has been successfully used in many food applications to reduce the amount of sodium. Potassium chloride delivers a similar salty perception and functionality when compared to sodium chloride. Unfortunately, potassium chloride cannot typically be used as a 1:1 replacement for sodium chloride as it often comes across as bitter or metallic to consumers. In order to successfully use potassium chloride in a sodium reduction project, product development teams will need to determine the level of potassium chloride that can be used to replace sodium chloride in their formulations to achieve both a sodium reduction and an acceptable flavor.
The bitter taste of potassium chloride has been an issue the food industry is working to address; there are several technologies on the market that can be added to formulas that will mask the bitter taste of potassium chloride and enable a manufacturer to replace more sodium chloride with potassium chloride.
Salt enhancers. Instead of replacing salt with a non-sodium salt, ingredients that are known to enhance a salty perception are an option when looking to reduce sodium in a formula. Salt enhancers typically deliver an umami taste sensation that is known to enhance the overall flavor and fullness of a product. Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The Umami taste can be described as meaty or brothy and is perceived as the savory characteristic in food. Umami’s savory taste is attributed to the presence of glutamates and nucleotides in a food. Ingredients such as monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate are all food additives that have been traditionally used to bring out this umami flavor in foods. These ingredients contain less sodium than salt and are typically used in smaller quantities, which make them a good alternative to salt. Yeast extracts and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins also contain glutamates and can be used to enhance the salty characteristic of a product. Note that sodium is usually found in these ingredients as well, so product development teams must make note of how much they can add the enhancers to achieve the sodium reduction they are targeting.
As the industry continues to focus on clean labels, ingredients such as monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, yeast extracts, and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins may not be as desirable. If this is the case, there are several other options on the market that naturally contain glutamates and nucleotides, like mushrooms, soy sauce, miso, hard cheeses, tomatoes, seaweed, and more. Umami blends are also available from several manufacturers, which have been developed to assist with natural sodium reduction and flavor enhancement applications.
Replacing salt with natural ingredients. In years past, one of the major focuses of the food industry was to provide consumers with a product that had a good value. In order to do this, manufacturers turned to lower-cost ingredients such as salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats to deliver desirable flavors consumers prefer. Unfortunately, the natural flavors of products often suffered during this time of value focus. As the negative effects of salt, sugar, and fat in the diet are being learned, the food industry may find itself shifting focus from value to flavor. Consumers will always want food that tastes good—it will be up to the food industry to identify ways to satisfy that need with healthy alternatives.
One approach to adding flavor back when reducing ingredients such as salt is to simply increase the use of natural flavors, like spices, garlic, onion, citrus juices, vinegars, and vegetables. These ingredients don’t necessarily enhance the salty perception of a food, but they add flavor and provide consumers with an alternative enjoyable experience.
Salt has been the go-to ingredient for product developers to help deliver the enjoyable flavor desired by consumers. However, there are many options for developing great tasting products that contain lower sodium levels. With a little work and persistence, developers can provide great tasting products that deliver a lower impact on the amount of sodium consumed in the U.S. diet.