The American Heart Assn. (AHA) recommends "healthy American adults should reduce their sodium intake to less than 2,300mg per day." The recommendations for lowering sodium intake include increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and avoiding highly processed food -- the major contributor of sodium in the modern diet.
The challenge to the AHA's position (and that of the rest of the anti-sodium lobby) is that to date science hasn't proven a link between sodium intake and cardiovascular health or hypertension in healthy adults. This overlooked fact, however, has not stemmed consumer demand for low-sodium foods. Also, there are still the estimated 4-8 million or so Americans whose hypertension or pre-hypertension is considered sodium sensitive.
The public perception that reduction of salt is an essential part of a healthy diet has not abated. So, even if salt isn't a smoking gun, there is and will continue to be a huge market for low-sodium and salt-reduced foods.
Spicing up flavor
There are many ways to reduce dietary sodium. The simplest is to "spice" up the dish. For example, unique flavors and healthful ingredients have made Indian foods a hit. "It's safe to say that authentic Indian Cuisine is steadily becoming the next ethnic 'world cuisine,' increasing in popularity every day, says Dhiraj Arora founder of Arora Creations Inc. (www.aroracreations.com), Brooklyn, N.Y. Arora wanted to bring the flavor of India to everyone, so he created the Authentic Indian Spice Blends line of all-natural, gluten-, MSG- and sugar-free spices. "Since many of these spices (curry and ginger) are functional foods, spicing is a healthful way to naturally lower sodium," says Arora.
"Salt free" is almost synonymous with Mrs. Dash. "Mrs. Dash is a completely salt free, all-natural seasoning blend," says Luann Schafer, marketing manager, Precision Foods Inc. (www.precisionfoods.com), St. Louis. Instead of salt, Mrs. Dash uses a citrus component that helps bring out the flavor of dishes. The absence of salt enables Mrs. Dash to deliver "cleaner, purer and more invigorating flavor than other seasoning blends on the market," says Schafer, adding, "its layers of flavors -- the only seasoning with 14 coarse-ground herbs and spices plus dehydrated vegetables all merged to provide better visual appeal and taste."
Mrs. Dash is moving outside of its well-known role as the primary non-salt shaker on the table. Processors are currently using Mrs. Dash as an ingredient in breading, rubs, salad dressings and topping for frozen fish.
Many spices are rich sources of flavonoids, a class of phytochemicals commonly known for their antioxidant properties associated with protection from cancer and heart disease. Could the flavonoids themselves serve as both seasoning and food preservatives? That thought grew into a product called Flavomare. "The idea of flavonoids being used as flavoring substances was totally new at the time the patent application was conceived," says Lasse Kurppa of SLK-Selako Co.s (www.selako.com), Helsinki, Finland. "After that date there has been significant progress in flavonoid research."
According to Kurppa, employing salt as a preservative throughout history has spoiled our taste. "Due to the use of salt for centuries to prevent foods from spoiling, people have grown accustomed to the taste of salt. Flavonoids used as spices must have a salty taste, and they have to enhance the salty taste in foodstuffs even if the foodstuff itself contains only low quantities of salt or contains no added salt," Kurppa states.
By combining different flavonoids, explains Kurppa, it is possible to enhance any of the basic flavors that can be sensed by the human mouth. The effect of enhancing salty taste can be achieved by using at least three flavonoids. "Because flavonoids enhance the taste, only small quantities of the ingredient are needed [to achieve] partial reduction of salt in foodstuffs without losing any of the taste or preservative properties of salt," adds Kurppa. As strong antioxidants, flavonoids also serve to preserve the foods and protect the flavor.
Not your father's salt
A simple and innovative way to lower the sodium without changing flavor is to process the salt crystal so that a little salt goes a long way. That's the idea behind Cargill's Alberger brand flake salt, according to Carlos Rodriguez, marketing manager for Cargill Salt, Cargill Inc. (www.cargill.com), Minneapolis.
Shaped like tiny hollow pyramid shells, Alberger salt crystals have a larger and more irregular surface, which makes them cling to foods and any other spices more readily yet dissolve faster in the mouth. For topical applications, such as crackers and other snack foods, that translates to a "maximum flavor burst," with a minimum amount of salt. It also allows the salt to more easily contribute to uniformity and consistency of blend and other products.
"Campbell has been working on ways to reduce sodium for many years," says Juli Mandel-Sloves, senior manager of nutrition and wellness communications for Campbell Soup Co. (www.campbellwellness.com), Camden, N.J. "We first offered low-sodium soups in the 1960's and first launched reduced-sodium Campbell's Healthy Request soups in the 1980's.
"Last year, we made a major breakthrough in our sodium-reduction efforts when we identified a sea salt that is naturally lower in sodium than table salt and other sea salts on the market. Not all sea salt is lower in sodium, but the one we identified is," adds Sloves. "It's not as simple as substituting our lower sodium natural sea salt, each one of our soups is handcrafted, we reduce the sodium in our products; add lower sodium natural sea salt; and also add other flavors and spices to create the soups."
The new Campbell soups have 25-50 percent less sodium than the original versions. Most of the product line comes in at or under the 480mg/serving level to comply with government criteria for "heart healthy" foods. There are 24 varieties of Campbell's Healthy Request soups, and all meet the AHA criteria to display the association's heart-check mark logo.
According to FDA and USDA rules, a food that carries the claim "healthy" may not exceed 360mg sodium per reference amount. "Meal type" products may not exceed 480mg sodium per reference amount. Specific labeling language is as follows: Sodium-free -- less than 5mg of sodium per serving; Very low-sodium -- 35mg or less per serving; Low-sodium -- 140mg or less per serving; reduced sodium -- usual sodium level is reduced by 25 percent, unsalted -- no salt added or without added salt (made without the salt that's normally used, but still contains the sodium that's a natural part of the food itself.).
Wild Flavors Inc. (www.wildflavors.com), Cincinnati, produces SaltTrim, a proprietary technology designed to work in conjunction with potassium chloride to reduce the sodium content of foods or beverages. "SaltTrim simultaneously masks the bitter notes associated with potassium and provides unique flavor and mouthfeel attributes to replace those lost as a result of the sodium removal, says Marion Dalacker, director of market strategies for WILD Flavors. Dalacker notes that an overall increase in dietary potassium is good for blood pressure control, since Americans generally get much less than the 4,700mg recommended daily level. "In most countries SaltTrim is labeled as 'natural flavor,' she points out.
Cargill's proprietary sodium reduction ingredient system called SaltWise, (GRAS approved, non-allergenic, and kosher) tastes like salt and has taste parity at 25-0 percent sodium reduction. "With SaltWise, food manufacturers can significantly reduce sodium levels in their product formulations and deliver the same salt flavor that consumers love," says Paul Vajda, marketing manager for Cargill Food Systems, The current variety of food applications includes: prepared foods, frozen meals, meat and poultry, soups, sauces, dressings and salted snacks.
Sodium is an essential nutrient, the primary intracellular electrolyte. It's balanced with potassium, the major electrolyte inside the cell. A highly refined diet tends to be but poor in potassium, normally abundant in fruits and vegetables. Selako also makes Antisalt, a "sodium-free product that contains magnesium and potassium in the same [molecular] ratio [of] a normal healthy cell. This helps your body to absorb and utilize important minerals more effectively," says Kurppa.
Potassium chloride is a common salt substitute, but when used alone, it can impart a metallic taste to foods. "Typically, the way to reduce salt has always been potassium chloride," says Markus Eckert, vice president, technical flavors for Mastertaste (www.mastertaste.com), Teterboro, N.J. The problem with this is that is has extremely bitter notes this means that when trying to reduce salt in a chicken broth, for example, you might end up with bitter notes and get more of a red-meat flavor profile because of the metallic notes."
Mastertaste uses flavor modulation technology primarily focused on salt reduction, bitter masking and sweetness modulation. "We are using FEMA GRAS flavor ingredients and chemicals as building blocks to create flavor modulators that actually interact with the receptors on your tongue," says Eckert. He further explains that the "synergy of the right building blocks and putting these building blocks together in the right way to make it perform in a specific application" requires fine tuning and addressing the specific issues of the end-application.
"We are looking at these building blocks as the toolbox for the flavorists to put together the most appropriate ingredients at the proper ratios," Eckert adds. "Most are tailor-made for the end-applications. However, we have created one or two per category we call 'universal soldiers' which work across the board."
Mastertaste's modulation technology can reduce salt in a variety of applications, including meats, sauces, condiments, topical seasonings, cheese, cereals, tomato-based products, vegetarian products, breadings and batters.
"With the flavor modulation technology, it is like a puzzle -- you have to put all the pieces together while taking into account the specific application in which salt content is to be reduced. To do this, we do a sensory profiling on the full-salt product, and then a sensory profile on the salt-reduced product to find the shortfalls of reducing the salt. Once we have done this, we can address and balance each attribute individually to make a better tasting salt-reduced product," says Eckert.
Reducing salt in all the right places
Another way to reduce sodium is to focus on the functional ingredients that contain it. "Food and beverage formulators recognize that the addition of sodium chloride (salt) in processed foods contributes to a number of desirable characteristics beyond flavor including texture, moisture content and preservation," states Barbara Heidolph, marketing development manager for ICL Performance Products LP (www.icl-perfproductslp.com), St. Louis. "However, with the increasing consumer demand for 'better-for-you', reduced-sodium products, formulators are continually challenged to meet their sodium targets.
By substituting functional ingredients that contain low or no sodium -- such as potassium, calcium or mixed-cation (potassium and sodium) phosphate salts -- formulators naturally reduce the overall sodium level of their processed food or beverage while allowing for higher levels of sodium chloride."
"Calcium and potassium levels also may increase with the inclusion of these functional ingredients. ICL has phosphate ingredients, Nutrifos, Levona and Benephos that allow formulators to reduce sodium without sacrificing texture, quality or flavor," continues Heidolph.
The sodium reduction strategies mentioned here are not replacements for salt. "There is no substitute for salt; it has a taste all its own, and there is no other seasoning that can duplicate its flavor or intensity," says Campbell's Mandel-Sloves. "The challenge we and others in the food industry have faced is creating lower sodium products that don't compromise on taste. After all, if it doesn't taste good, people won't eat it."