If consumers want to have their cake and eat it, too, they definitely want to have their steak and eat it as well. At a time when food products increasingly need to be all things for all people – namely, flavorful, healthy, convenient and affordable – meat and poultry processors and their ingredient suppliers have been working diligently to balance desired attributes while continuing to deliver quality and taste.

Growing demand for lower-sodium meat and poultry products is one example of the importance of carefully balancing ingredients for the desired effect. Salty taste, after all, is a major factor in palatability for most consumers, particularly when it comes to items like frozen entrees, soups, prepared meals, processed meats and the like.

The flavor chemists, food technologists, chefs, and applications specialists at Spicetec Flavors and Seasonings™ (SFS), the ConAgra Food Ingredients brand that specializes in providing flavor solutions for savory challenges, have devoted a lot of time and resources recently to develop lower-sodium foods, including a variety of meat and poultry products.

“Everyone we work with is working on lower-sodium, pretty much 100 percent. They may have different angles -- perhaps it's part of contribution to a meal, or moderating the protein-sodium contribution slightly – but the interest is definitely there. We are working on range of 10 to 40 percent (sodium reduction),” reports Lori Evans, director of technical services, adding that a plethora of consumer and industry groups have influenced consumer attitudes toward sodium in recent years.

Tammy Brandon, principal development scientist at SFS, notes that meat and poultry processors are all too aware of the impact of less sodium on the flavor profile of finished products. “As processed meat products historically contain significant levels of sodium (from salt) for processing needs and preservation, consumers are accustomed to higher levels of sodium in these products. In my experience, if consumers are looking for reduced-sodium meat and poultry products, they are generally not willing to sacrifice flavor. It is beneficial to processors to identify means by which to reduce sodium while maintaining, if not enhancing flavor delivery,” she remarks.

Specific solutions
To that end, SFS experts have improved on their ingredients and ingredient technologies to allow for lower-sodium levels. Brandon cites several potential solutions: “Flavor systems that allow for reduction in sodium but contribute to enhancement of flavor delivery might include ingredients such as Maillard reaction flavors, yeast extracts, I&G, mineral salts, acids, fermented ingredients, vegetable concentrates, spices, high intensity sweeteners, bitter maskers/blockers, and top note flavors.”

Adding a layer of complexity to the challenge is the concurrent consumer clamor for clean labels. “There is the thought of ‘I can't have anything that is not in my pantry’,” points out Evans, who says that SFS has had to adjust to that marketplace shift as well. “There are things we wish we could use that are good at delivering flavor, like MSG, but they are often off the table.”

Instead, just as there has been a shift in consumer perceptions about sodium, Evans says there is also a change in the way processors look at how to reduce sodium in their products. “With everyone so focused on this initiative and with customers so committed to working closely with us, we have more opportunities to rebuild complete systems. In the past, it’s been what we call a ‘bolt-on’ solution, where you put something on top of an existing formula and pull out the other sodium contribution. Now, people understand that a different approach is warranted," she explains.

There are many benefits to the total systems approach, according to Evans. “We are able to design optimally for flavor deliver, salty taste and functionality,” she declares.

Still, there are some challenges in developing lower-sodium meat and poultry-based foods. “You often have a little gap compared to what the product originally looked like,” Evans says. “So, anytime you are combining ingredients, like pieces of meat or vegetables, you put them through a reaction such as a cooking process. Knowing the critical time and temperature reactions for an outcome helps deliver differences in flavor. When you build savory reaction flavors, you can fill in salty or overall flavor profiles compared to the original. We’ve been successful with that.”

Another challenge with lower-sodium products is tied to freshness. “The extra hurdle you have in these types of products is managing shelf life; since salt is an outstanding preservative,” adds Evans. That said, more food additives are available today that are used to maintain shelf life in reduced sodium meat and poultry products.

Despite the continued flagging economy, Brandon predicts the demand for lower-sodium meat and poultry products will continue. “Replacing salt is not a low-cost venture, but measurable results can be achieved without a great deal of added expense,” she notes.