Fresh, animal-based proteins are naturally low in sodium, containing 50 to 70 mg per 100 g. But many meat and poultry processors add sodium-containing ingredients, primarily table salt (sodium chloride) and phosphates, to improve flavor, functionality and yield. This is particularly true for processed meat products.

The added salt in all foods continues to be highly scrutinized by medical, nutritional and regulatory authorities and has been charged with being a contributing factor to health issues from heart disease to obesity. Formulators are trying to better manage sodium contents in order to appeal to consumers who are increasingly scrutinizing nutritional profiles before they purchase products. In fact, 32 percent of shoppers reported they are buying more foods based on nutritional components vs. last year, according to “Shopping for Health 2012,” the 20th annual survey-based study released by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Prevention magazine and published by Rodale Inc. Sixty-seven percent of shoppers say sodium is important to them, with 32 percent of shoppers saying they are buying more low-sodium products vs. 2011, the study notes.

On the foodservice side, the recent Supreme Court decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act cleared the way for national requirements about posting nutritional information at chain restaurants. Listing calories, fat content and sodium levels of menu items at the point of purchase has been promoted as a way to address the obesity epidemic.

Interestingly, an audit of menus at 11 sit-down restaurants and 26 quick-serve chains in Seattle, one year after menu labeling had been implemented on a local level in January 2009, showed evidence of a decrease in energy, saturated fat and sodium content after the implementation of menu regulations for items that were on the menu at both time periods. However, the study found that the majority of entrées were still very high in these nutrients, compared to dietary guidelines. (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, August 2012)

Without a doubt, consumer activists will continue to be loud about high sodium levels, putting pressure on operators to offer lower-sodium foods. If this is not motivation enough for meat and poultry processors, then the new nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, requiring the reduction of sodium in the foods they serve to school kids, should be.

Swapping out salt

The good news for protein processors is there are a variety of sodium-reduction technologies available. Processors must remember that reducing sodium requires more than replacing the taste of salt, as salt also impacts other flavors, texture and function.

Formulators should work with suppliers to identify the best sodium-reduction strategy, which is often a combination of ingredients, almost always still including salt. This is because salt plays a significant role in meat and poultry processing, as it functions to increase ions in the protein system, which influences quality and safety.

The ingredient matrix often includes potassium chloride, which is ironically the closest molecule to sodium chloride. The drawback, however, is that even though potassium chloride possesses some of the salty taste characteristics of sodium chloride, it also can impart metallic or bitter off-notes. This is typically covered up or masked by the addition of various flavors and flavor enhancers, in particular, those that provide umami. The latter is best described as a pleasant savory taste imparted by the amino acid glutamate and various nucleotides.

A number of suppliers offer ingredient systems that blend potassium chloride with flavors and/or flavor enhancers for direct replacement of some of the salt in a product formulation. These systems are designed for specific meat and poultry applications and allow for up to a 75 percent reduction in sodium in the finished product.

There’s also technology that minimizes the metallic notes of potassium chloride, allowing for a taste that closely matches sodium chloride, without the need to add any other flavors or flavor enhancers. Depending upon the application, one-third to half of the sodium chloride can be replaced with such specialty potassium chloride.

Processors looking to reduce sodium in meat rubs or other seasonings can explore the use of different granulations of salt. Finer particles of salt, as well as granulations with more surface area, provide more upfront salty taste and allow for reduced use levels.

As mentioned, various flavor and flavor enhancers are often used in combination with potassium chloride. Umami flavor enhancers, many of which are based on fermentation technology, typically boost the underlying flavor of the protein, while masking off flavors from potassium chloride. Some umami flavor enhancers, such as yeast extracts, will enhance the protein’s mouthfeel and body.

The mineral magnesium is also recognized for its ability to work in conjunction with potassium chloride to decrease bitterness and at the same time enhance flavor and provide similar functionalities as sodium.

There is also technology that allows for salt to be combined with potassium chloride and various flavors and flavor enhancers into a single granular system for direct substitution for all of the salt in a formulation. The ingredient is designed to match the functionalities of regular salt in foods, while reducing sodium contents up to 50 percent.

Some flavor enhancers are designed to be used without potassium chloride, allowing for up to a 50 percent reduction in sodium. These are often a combination of a number of ingredients, such as yeast extracts, nucleotides, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins and monosodium glutamate.

Potassium phosphates are an option for reducing sodium in marinades and brines, with any of these other technologies added on to assist with flavor management. Various fruit ingredients, most notably those derived from dried plums, can replace phosphates in meat and poultry marinades. The plum extract binds moisture, tenderizing the protein, and it also provides other functionalities.

Meat and poultry processors have ample options for reducing sodium, while maintaining taste and quality.

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