Sodium is Essential
The science supporting the relationship between sodium reduction and health is clear. When sodium intake increases, blood pressure increases, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death in the US.
Even though today’s consumers get more than their fair share of health and nutrition advice, studies show if a food is not tasty, they don’t eat it, regardless of how good it is for them. With most consumers, salty, one of the five basic tastes, is delicious. The problem with salty is it has been traditionally delivered through the addition of table salt, chemically known as sodium chloride.
Interestingly, the human body needs relatively large amounts of sodium to properly operate. Unlike consumers’ efforts to dramatically reduce carbohydrates, fats or sugars for various health and wellness regimes, one can go too low with sodium intake. Sodium is essential to nerve and muscle function, fluid balance and blood pressure. Without sodium, the body shuts down.
It is paramount that processors understand that the words “salt” and “sodium” do not mean the same thing, even though they are often used interchangeably. Sodium is one of the two chemical elements in salt. Both sodium and chloride are minerals and together do a great job of delivering delicious salty taste. But other minerals also provide a salty taste to foods. In fact, there’s an array of flavor-enhancing ingredients available to boost salty taste without adding sodium.
“For meat manufacturers, there are particular challenges when it comes to sodium reduction,” says Christiane Lippert, head of marketing-food, Lycored, Aylesford, United Kingdom. “Salt has traditionally played an important role in flavoring meat products, in addition to preservation and texture enhancement.”
Kara McDonald, vice president of global marketing communications with the US Dairy Export Council, Arlington, Virginia, says, “With encouragement from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers are looking to new ingredients that mimic the taste and functionality of salt.”
On June 1, 2016, FDA proposed voluntary sodium reduction goals for all food products. They are based on data showing the average sodium intake in the US is approximately 3,400 mg. per day. The draft short-term (two-year) and long-term (10-year) voluntary targets for industry are intended to help the American public gradually reduce sodium intake to 2,300 mg. per day, a level recommended by leading experts and the overwhelming body of scientific evidence. The targets take into consideration the many functions of sodium in food, including taste, texture, microbial safety and stability.
“Consumers are concerned more than ever about sodium content in their foods, but refuse to compromise on taste and, of course, they also demand a clean label,” says Revital Ben Shachar, global marketing director of Salt of the Earth Ltd., based in Atlit, Israel. “It is easy to reduce 10 to 15 percent of sodium without critically affecting flavor – a growing number of food companies already do this voluntarily – but FDA recommends reducing sodium by 30 percent, a difficult goal that presents challenges to manufacturers.”
McDonald says, “Some may see FDA’s new voluntary guideline as a barrier, but there is definitely an opportunity to ease consumers into a healthier diet without them noticing. By taking a stealthy approach, slowly reducing sodium levels in products over two to 10 years, consumers are less likely to recognize the formulation difference.”
That slow reduction may be communicated quietly on the Nutrition Facts label. Indeed, most food marketers opt to make ingredient adjustments without flagging total sodium reduction in order to prevent any preconceived notions that the food will taste inferior. In order to identify these lower-sodium foods, consumers often need to compare Nutrition Facts labels. And they are, with sodium on their radar..
Research shows that two in three shoppers (66 percent) agree that food choices are an important factor affecting their health, according to results presented in the 2016 Shopping for Health Report, compiled by The Food Marketing Institute and Rodale. The study was based on an online survey of 1,404 Americans, which took place mid-November 2015. Almost the same number (62 percent), view the food they eat as medicine for the body and, as such, try to buy a mix of foods that will offer different health benefits.
An impressive 67 percent of shoppers generally read food labels to see what is in the foods they buy, with more than half (53 percent) saying that the salt/sodium content of foods concerns them. As ingredients of concern, salt/sodium is second on the list, right behind sugar/artificial sweeteners at 55 percent. Interestingly, one-third of consumers surveyed say they are buying more foods that are lower in sodium, as compared to the previous year.
A toolbox of ingredient options
Processors have a range of ingredient systems to lower sodium content without impacting taste, and when it comes to some meat and poultry, safety and functionality, too. Finding a suitable substitute for sodium chloride has historically been difficult because of salt’s unique clean taste and flavor-enhancing properties. However, when it comes to function, sodium and potassium work similarly in managing moisture to reduce microbial growth and control the onset of pathogens, which is why some meat and poultry processors often replace some sodium chloride with potassium chloride in order to reduce sodium content. There is also often a partial swap of sodium phosphates with potassium versions.
The drawback to traditional potassium-based ingredients is that the salty flavor is tasted slower than that of the sodium-based counterpart. Potassium is also known to have a bitter aftertaste. In recent years, suppliers have managed to identify various technologies to overcome or mask potassium’s bitterness with the use of other ingredients or processing technologies.
“We tend to focus too much on the concept of reduction, of taking something away,” Lippert says. “Hence, many manufacturers will do nothing more than reduce the sodium levels in their meats in the hope that consumers won’t notice.
“Processors are smart to not just reduce sodium, but also to reformulate with natural flavor enhancers,” Lippert says. “Do not just take something away from the product, but add ingredients that enhance taste characteristics.”
Some suppliers offer flavors that function as bitter blockers, which assist with the swap of potassium chloride for sodium chloride. There are also metallic blockers that assist when other minerals are used for enhancing purposes. Sometimes what works best is to use a multi-system approach.
Another option is mineral-rich sea salts, often times blends of salts, to achieve more salty taste with less sodium. Suppliers have learned that even varying the cut of the salt crystal can have an impact on salty perception in some applications.
Jungbunzlauer Inc., Newton Center, Massachusetts, offers a salt replacer based on sodium chloride, potassium chloride and sodium gluconate. It gives the same salty flavor, functionality and ease of use as salt, but with a 35 percent sodium reduction when directly replaced, according to the company. There’s also a system designed to function as a reduced-sodium curing salt. Its use is similar to regular curing salt and is designed to replace both the added salt and curing salt in the formula.
Yeast extracts are recognized for their ability to provide umami flavor and are often part of some salt-reduction systems. Some yeast-based taste enhancers provide an additional dimension of flavor through the contribution of roasted flavor notes.
AkzoNobel, The Netherlands, developed a sodium-reduction system that brings different ingredients together in a new grain of salt. It is said to contain the optimal balance of sodium salt, potassium salt and flavor, often in the form of yeast extract. The flavor brings back the salty taste while masking the negative taste of the potassium salt. All of the ingredients are homogenously combined into a single grain making it a one-to-one replacer of regular salt.
In recent years, permeate has emerged as a partial replacement for sodium chloride in meat and poultry products. Permeate is a coproduct of the production of whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, ultra-filtered milk, milk protein concentrate or milk protein isolate, ingredients used in many foods and beverages for protein fortification. To concentrate the protein in these ingredients, select components, mainly minerals, are filtered out. These minerals have been shown to enhance the salt characteristics in a range of foods including fully cooked meat and poultry products, such as sausages and luncheon meat. Permeate is labeled simply as dairy product solids on the ingredient panel and has minimal contribution to sodium content.
“In addition to reducing the sodium in meats, permeate can enhance browning, mask bitter flavors and improve structure formation,” says Kimberlee Burrington, dairy ingredient applications coordinator at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Madison, Wisconsin. “The lactose in permeate provides an effective starter culture carbohydrate for the preparation of fermented sausages and cooked hams.”
Salt of the Earth developed an all-natural, liquid sodium-reduction ingredient based on sea salt and umami-rich vegetable products, such as tomato concentrate, and mushroom and seaweed extracts.
“Our sodium-reduction ingredient is a ready-to-use formulation,” Ben Shachar says. “It can help reduce sodium intake up to 45 percent in hamburgers and meatballs, and by 33 percent in hot dogs. Another benefit is that it can help eliminate use of monosodium glutamate.”
Lycored offers a tomato-derived concentrate that enhances the taste of a wide range of diverse products, including whole muscle injected meats; chunk and form reconstructed mechanically deboned meats; cooked sliced meats and sausages, according to Lippert. It can be can be declared as tomato concentrate.
“It is an extremely versatile ingredient that allows manufacturers to entirely remove other ingredients with negative connotations such as monosodium glutamate, artificial taste enhancers and yeast,” Lippert says. “It is not merely a replacement for salt. It is a catch-all taste improver that helps manufacturers ‘clean up’ their entire label.
“Maybe it’s time to change our mind set on sodium reduction,” Lippert concludes. “Reducing salt does demand strategic new approaches to the formulation of meat products, but manufacturers who are ahead of the game open up new opportunities in terms of flavor enhancement, clean labelling and consumer appeal.”