Salt plays a role in food safety as well as making foods taste good.

A safety-savory-silent strategy may be in order when working to reduce sodium in meat products. Food safety remains a must while consumers demand the same savory taste and juicy mouthfeel in the products.

Yet upon maintaining safety, taste and texture, food manufacturers may decide to stay silent and not market the accomplishments. When consumers hear low sodium, they still may associate it with poor taste.

Gradual, stealth sodium reductions continue to occur. Amino acids and other flavor enhancers may help to keep the taste in meat products. Potassium-based products may provide assistance with shelf life and texture.

A Mintel survey from 2013 found 54 percent of US consumers look at the sodium content listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel of packaged foods, said Stephanie Pauk, global food science analyst for Mintel, at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Wellness 14 event held this past March in Chicago. Another 49 percent specifically look for “reduced/no/low sodium/salt” on the panel, according to the survey.

Pauk said industry focus will remain on covert reduction because consumers tend to think less salt means less taste and enjoyment.

Percentages from The NPD Group were lower. Thirty-nine per cent of American adults looked for sodium content on the nutrition labels in 2013, which was down from 41 percent in 2010.

In the next five years the use of foods with special label claims like low sodium/salt free is expected to decline across every generational group except Gen Z (age 0-23), according to The NPD Group. People in that age group are still learning about foods and nutrition, according to The NPD Group. Among all age groups, the percentage of foods eaten with a low sodium or no salt label is expected to decline by 1 percent from 2013 to 2018.

“The challenges in getting Americans closer to the guidelines are multi-faceted,” said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at The NPD Group. “Salt is an important ingredient in making foods taste good. Simply removing sodium from foods and/or beverages will likely be met with consumer resistance.

“Eating habits are difficult to change unless a change is required because of a health condition. If food manufacturers and food service operators are able to reduce the sodium in foods and still make them taste as good, inroads will be made in reducing US consumers’ salt intake.”

Industry focus will remain on covert sodium reduction because consumers equate less salt to less taste enjoyment.

Keep it savory

Amino acids may help move industry along the sodium reduction path. Naturally fermented soy sauce provides amino acids, said Joe Leslie, national industrial sales and marketing manager at Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco.

“Amino acids activate our taste receptors to provide a desirable umami perception,” he said. “Fermented foods, like naturally brewed soy sauce, contain just the right quantities of amino acids and in the right proportions to act as natural flavor ‘potentiators’ and umami contributors in meat products.”

Kikkoman offers a soy sauce with 37 percent less sodium than its regular soy sauce, a lower sodium soy sauce that is free of preservatives and a premium soy sauce that has 45 percent less sodium than its regular soy sauce. During manufacturing, the premium soy sauce is fermented to release amino acids and glutamic acid responsible for umami.

Natural flavor enhancers from Kikkoman allow for sodium reduction of 30 percent to 50 percent.

Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, Wis., offers a Wix-Fresh system of natural flavors that have been shown to reduce sodium by 50 percent in meat and poultry items. Savoury Systems International, Branchburg, NJ, offers Salt Replacer No. 0885 that is based on yeast extracts and does not include potassium chloride. It is best suited for poultry applications. Amino acids in the yeast extracts help increase savory notes, which round out flavors.

Keeping it safe

Salt plays a role in food safety, too. Curing salt, which is a combination of sodium chloride and sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite, helps to maintain the red meat color and to suppress microbial growth, according to Jungbunzlauer.

The ingredient supplier offers potassium lactate and potassium lactate/diacetate blends. Studies with cooked sausage have tested the efficacy of potassium lactate 60 percent and potassium lactate/sodium diacetate 56 percent/4 percent against Listeria monocytogenes and Aerobic mesophilic bacteria. The use of potassium lactate increased shelf life three weeks compared to control. The blend allowed an additional six weeks of shelf life compared to the control.

Potassium chloride may act as a replacement to sodium chloride, some studies show.

Sub4salt, another Jungbunzlauer ingredient, has been shown to work as a 1:1 substitute for salt. A blend of sodium chloride, potassium chloride and sodium gluconate, sub4salt contains 35 percent less sodium than salt. Jungbunzlauer combined sodium nitrite with sub4salt to create sub4salt cure for meat products. More than 50 percent sodium reduction is possible by combining potassium-based lactate or lactate/diacetate together with sub4salt cure.

The PuraQ Arome NA4 ingredient from Corbion Purac is a natural flavoring that mimics meat flavor and helps to manage water activity. It has been shown to lower the sodium content by up to 40 percent and works in such meat products as frankfurters, sausages, deli meats, seafood filets, and ready-to-eat meat and meals. The ingredient promotes savory attributes imparting meaty, brothy, spicy and salty notes. It may be labeled as natural flavoring.

Soy sauce, besides providing flavor, may reduce pH to improve shelf life, Leslie said.

“The naturally occurring alcohol inherent in fermented soy sauce impedes microbial growth,” he said. “Soy sauce also helps blend the flavors of spices added to meats while enhancing, or even replacing, preservatives.”

Cargill, Minneapolis, has found ways to reduce sodium while avoiding soggy ham, hot dogs and other meats.

“From a texture standpoint, if the muscle fibers no longer have the water and fat droplets between them, the meat products will lose lubricity, causing the product to appear drier and tougher than a product with added salt,” Cargill said.

Salt, when added to meat, forms a gel matrix that traps small drops of water and fat. Studies have shown that potassium chloride may act as a replacement to sodium chloride because chloride ions behave the same way whether they come from sodium chloride or potassium chloride.

When salt levels are above 2.4 percent in meat products, often sodium may be reduced by small and unannounced increments with wider consumer acceptance, according to Cargill. Other sensory characteristics, including texture and umami flavor, may change within the meat products, however.

Products with higher protein-to-fat ratios generally need a higher concentration of salt to be perceived as salt, according to Cargill, which points to a study in the February 2013 issue of Meat Science. Researchers at Univ. College Cork in Ireland made 28 sausages with concentrations of fat varying from 22.5 percent to 37.5 percent and concentrations of salt varying from 0.8 percent to 2.4 percent. Sausages were assessed instrumentally for color, moisture, fat, cooking loss and texture profile analysis. Consumers evaluated each product for color, texture, tenderness, juiciness, salt taste, meat flavor, off-flavor and overall acceptability.

Lowering fat led to products that consumers rated as less dark in color, tougher, less juice and less salty tasting than high fat products. Lowering salt led to products that consumers rated as paler in color, more tender and with greater meat flavor than products with higher salt levels. Consumers significantly accepted the sausages containing 1.4 percent and 1 percent salt than sausages with other salt levels.