If fire was humankind’s first flavor enhancer, salt emerged as its second. In fact, salt is one of the most amazing workhorse food ingredients ever discovered, not only in terms of enhancing flavor but also for delivering texture, taste, and appealing mouthfeel. It’s been an important preservative and food protection agent for thousands of years. The question now facing the industry, however, given the undeniable reality that too much salt can also be harmful, is whether the ingredient is functionally irreplaceable.
Consider salt’s provenance: Throughout history, the availability and use of this remarkable mineral was pivotal in the rise of civilizations all around the world. At the same time, medical science has taught us that excess salt is too much of a good thing—so much that it becomes a very bad thing indeed. Too much sodium can cause cardiovascular health problems—hypertension, stroke, and kidney disease, to name a few—and most of the sodium in the typical Western diet comes from high added salt content.
From a taste viewpoint, salt has an impressive track record. It’s one of the main “basic” flavors and improves the taste of many foodstuffs by suppressing bitterness, making food more palatable and also relatively sweeter. Today it’s used liberally to add flavor to a plethora of different manufactured and processed foods and restaurant menu items—too liberally, according to many global health authorities.
In October 2021, FDA issued a final guidance with voluntary targets and recommendations for salt over the next two and a half years. The agency’s goal is to persuade the food industry to voluntarily reduce sodium content from an average of 3,400 mg per person per day to 3,000 mg. While this goal is still well above the generally recommended sodium daily target of 2,300 mg per day, the objective is to foster a gradual reduction in sodium content, such that technical and market constraints around sodium reduction can be overcome over time.
Reducing sodium content is certainly achievable; that bears stating. However, there are limits on stealth reduction using the simplified strategy of just using less salt. In practice, formulators can’t go beyond a 10% to 15% reduction of sodium content without running into significant taste, texture, and shelf-life challenges—changes consumers notice immediately, and not in a positive way. The very large challenge lies in naturally protecting (or enhancing) taste while also preserving food safety at a reduced sodium level.
In this article, we identify ways to successfully achieve these objectives.
Although the FDA sodium guidance is voluntary and a way to signal to industry that mandated sodium reduction may be on the way, the current heightened consumer focus on health and wellness, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, already demands that the industry make changes. Voluntary guidance also tends to work its way into federal nutrition policy and food-assistance programs, such as school meal initiatives, and “recommendations” from FDA are often also integrated into state and local policies around food procurement, supplemental assistance, and education.
For the food industry, the reformulation race has already started to find solutions that will replace salt’s role in the protection, preservation, and flavor of food. Although meat sits near the top of the list (meat applications are notoriously difficult in terms of meeting sodium targets), with dairy applications such as processed cheese close behind, plant-based meat substitutes, perhaps counterintuitively, often carry significantly higher salt content than their animal counterparts.
Let’s not forget to mention processed meats, cheeses, plant proteins, sauces, marinades, salty snacks, etc. These are all challenging categories for formulators facing multiple concurrent problems involving taste, texture, and shelf life when seeking to reduce salt content. On the practicality side, reducing sodium can also create shelf-life challenges: Many preservative solutions currently on the market, both clean label and conventional, are sodium based, so they can actually end up contributing more sodium to the final product.