Most consumed sodium comes from salt, chemically known as sodium chloride. And while reducing sodium is a priority for the food industry, as too much sodium can cause high blood pressure, one of the leading causes of heart disease and stroke, with many industrially prepared foods, sodium reduction efforts are far more complex than simply adding less salt. This is particularly true with many meat and poultry products where salt plays a role not just in taste, but in texture and safety.

“Sodium is very important for a number of functions in processed-meat products, first and foremost is flavor,” says Jeff Sindelar, Ph.D., associate professor and extension meat specialist in the department of animal sciences at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison. “Sodium also helps provide the texture consumers are accustomed to as well as for safety to control pathogenic bacteria and spoilage.”

Ingredient suppliers offer a range of solutions to assist processors with their sodium-reduction efforts. They don’t all involve cutting salt from the formulation.

“It is important for any sodium-reduction effort to first determine the desired sodium content of the finished product,” says Barbara Heidolph, director of commercial development with Innophos Inc., Cranbury, NJ. “The next step is to consider all sources of sodium.”

Ron Jenkins, commercial development specialist of meat, poultry and seafood at Innophos, concurs that all sources of sodium must be considered. “For example, a typical cured ham often contains five sodium-containing ingredients: salt, sodium lactate, sodium phosphate, sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate,” he says. There are ingredients that allow for reduction of sodium from all of these sources, which together can allow for a noteworthy reduction in total sodium.

“The bottom line is that it’s both possible and life-saving to reduce sodium, and this can be done by reducing, replacing and reformulating,” says Tom Frieden, director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta.

Hidden sodium sources

The secret to sodium reduction is to capitalize on salt’s unique functionality as much as possible. This means keeping salt where it matters most.

For example, breadings and batters are often a hidden source of sodium, as they often contain sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and various leavening acids, according to Heidolph. “We have replaced sodium acid pyrophosphates, which is 21 percent sodium, with calcium acid pyrophosphate, to achieve up to a 25 percent reduction in sodium in the batter-breading system,” she says. “The sodium bicarbonate can also be partially or totally replaced with potassium bicarbonate.

“Sodium reduction in the batter-breading portion is rather easy to achieve,” says Heidolph. “This then allows for more salt to remain in the meat or poultry component, where it is a more critical component.”

Jim Anderson, technical coordinator-meat, poultry and seafood, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis, Mo., concurs that processors must consider sodium reduction via the careful substitution of sodium-containing ingredients. Only then should they start reducing total salt content.

“There are no true salt replacers, especially when the low price of salt is factored into the equation,” he says. This is why it makes sense to keep as much salt in any formulation while reducing sodium from other sources.

For example, in systems that require strong water-holding capacity, it is possible to replace sodium phosphates with potassium phosphates. “This approach can make a significant reduction in sodium while achieving excellent moisture retention,” says Anderson. “A 25 percent sodium reduction is easily achieved from the standard while preserving succulence, texture and, of course, cook yield.”

Phosphates are used in both raw and cooked products. They open up the structure of the myofilament in the muscle. This increases the number of binding sites for water, and thus enhances moisture retention.

“Processors must remember that once contributory sodium is at a reasonable level, further reduction can be realized by formulation adjustments that allow for an increase in moisture,” says Anderson. In other words, when a formula supports the addition of more water, the resulting grams-of-sodium per serving are lowered.

“In reduced-sodium meat and poultry products, we recommend a phosphate usage level near its maximum USDA-approved level of 0.5 percent and a salt level no lower than 1.5 percent in order to provide the desired level of moisture binding and protein extraction,” says Jenkins.

“Alkaline [pH 8.5 to 12.0] phosphates provide a synergistic impact with salt to improve moisture binding and protein extraction,” he says. “Besides pH, a phosphate containing a higher content of pyrophosphate is most important in maximizing protein extraction, especially in reduced-sodium applications. Without use of a sufficient level and type of phosphate, a lowered salt product may not provide desirable binding or sensory qualities.”

Potassium power

When salt must be reduced, most scientists agree that potassium chloride is the best partial replacement. Suppliers have developed a number of unique forms and blends that eliminate the bitterness associated with potassium while increasing salty taste.

“We leverage particle size and shape to optimize sodium content,” says Doyle Keffer, technical service manager, Cargill Salt, Minneapolis. “We offer an innovative product line that uses patent-pending compacting technology to combine and agglomerate potassium chloride with regular table salt or sea salt. The resulting particles are homogeneous, low in bulk density, highly soluble and provide superior adherence for topical applications as compared to dry blended or granulated products.

“Because every application is different, we offer many sizes and shapes for the best functionality,” Keffer adds. The company has had success with up to a 50 percent sodium reduction in different applications, including bacon, deli meats, hot dogs and pizza toppings.

Keffer points out that in addition to reducing sodium contents, there’s another nutritional advantage to formulating with potassium chloride. “Most Americans do not meet the dietary recommendations for daily potassium intake,” he says. Thus, replacing sodium-containing ingredients with a similarly functioning potassium-containing ingredient can help Americans increase their daily potassium intake.

Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, Minn., offers processors an advanced formula potassium chloride sodium-reduction system that functions as a 1:1 replacement for traditional sodium chloride salt. It allows processors to reduce sodium levels by up to 50 percent while maintaining the taste and functional attributes of traditional sodium chloride salt.

“Our patented single-crystal technology greatly mitigates the bitterness typically associated with other potassium-chloride solutions,” says Brian Boor, senior vice president of sales and business administration. “In doing so, this curtails the need for flavor maskers and flavor enhancers historically seen in such solutions. This results in dramatic and cost-effective achievements in sodium reduction, while offering a simplified and much cleaner label consumers increasingly demand.”

Potassium is a key component of a new salt replacer from Jungbunzlauer, Newton Centre, Mass. “We manufacture a salt replacer that gives the same salty flavor profile, functionality and ease of use as salt, but with a 35 percent sodium reduction when directly replaced,” says John Reidy, market development manager of health and nutrition. The ingredient is identified on legends as salt replacer (sodium chloride, potassium chloride and sodium gluconate) or you can place the separate ingredients accordingly.

“We have also combined sodium nitrite with our salt replacer to offer a reduced-sodium curing salt, which is a very unique product,” Reidy says. “We conducted many trials to develop this blend that is shelf-stable and has the same functionality as regular curing salt.” This reduced-sodium curing salt was designed to replace both the curing salt and added salt in cured meat formulations, which helps to simplify the process of weighing ingredients.

“We are able to support reducing sodium further by offering potassium lactate, a sodium-free alternative to sodium lactate. Usage level and functionality are virtually identical to each other making the switch very easy for formulators,” he adds. “The biggest benefit is achieved when all of these solutions are combined. They work together synergistically and can provide a sodium reduction of up to 68 percent with very little reformulating effort.”

Layer of flavor

Flavors and seasonings are often a key component of a sodium-reduction system. In some applications, flavors and seasonings can successfully build back flavor when a nominal amount of salt is reduced in a formula. In other instances, they work with sodium replacements, functioning as potentiators or masking agents, or even adding another sensory dimension.

“The solution really depends on what the customer is looking for with regards to flavor, quality and labeling,” says Meredith Bishop, principal development scientist, Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings, Cranbury, NJ. “We have designed our low-sodium solutions to be flavor blends, not direct replacements for sodium chloride.

“Typically, our flavor blends are used at a rate of 0.15 percent to 0.5 percent of the finished product,” Bishop says. “Comfortably, we have achieved around 25 percent to 35 percent sodium reduction with little flavor impact. It gets challenging to be cost effective, however, as most other ingredients are typically more expensive than table salt. This is another reason why we try to keep the use level low.”

Many sodium-reducing ingredients are product and process specific. “You need to look at the physical processes of blending, tumbling and vacuum processes, as well as the order of ingredient addition,” says Jenkins.

Sodium reduction must be analyzed from a systematic point of view rather than the composite of ingredients, concludes Anderson. “When this comprehensive approach is utilized, significant sodium reduction is achievable without organoleptic degradation,” he says.

Donna Berry is a Meat&Poultry contributing editor from Chicago and owner of Dairy & Food Communications.