"There is no magic bullet for sodium reduction," Kragt points out. "Use of potassium chloride can be formula-specific, so levels of substitution that may work in one product may not be as acceptable in another. Developers may have to adjust spices and herbs in a formula and add masking flavors to improve the flavor profile."
As for the most important challenge in lower sodium products, "Consumers expect healthy products to still deliver on taste," she adds. "Processors who have been the most successful at sodium reduction evaluate each formula to optimize taste by using ingredients that can enhance saltiness and balance flavor."
Set the objectives
"The first step in sodium reduction is to understand first and foremost your strategy and set the objectives you want to meet," says Carlos Rodriguez, marketing manager for Minneapolis-based Cargill Salt (www.cargill.com/salt). "Many companies now are setting their objectives at what the New York City Public Health Dept. is recommending [lowering salt intake in packaged foods and restaurants by 25 percent in the next five years]. After that, it is really understanding your product, and taking a step back to ask, what's in our product and what is adding the sodium into it?"
Rodriguez explains that sodium can come from multiple sources, not just salt. "Sodium can come from different flavoring or texturizing agents, so you have to really understand all the nuances of any ingredients being added. Then you have to ask, what target am I trying to reach, am I optimizing my salt so that it is only being used for what it needs to be used for, and what level can I cut out and still maintain that taste?
"For products that are not high in sodium, you may only need to drop it 10-15 percent, and there might be ways to get there without more costly flavor/system solutions. When you are looking at reductions of 10-25 percent, we've seen a lot of success with the use of something as simple as Premier Potassium Chloride. We also have Alberger salt, which has a unique property to it with low bulk density in a wider surface area in topical applications such as salty snacks. It has rapid solubility, so when it hits the tongue, the flavor pops. You get a much higher sensation and perception of salt without using as much."
There is a point when sodium reduction becomes more complex. "You can hit a certain level of sodium reduction when you have to start taking a look at complex salt replacers," says Rodriguez. "When you take out something that affects functionality or flavor, you have to figure out how to replace those back into the formula. It can be a long process when you look at how formulations are done and the costing. Taking out salt causes the price to go up. The ultimate thing our customers want is a one-to-one replacement that doesn't affect taste and price.
"When you get to a 50 percent reduction, you get into flavor modifiers or more complex systems because you are trying to suppress bitter, enhance salty and do more than just reduce sodium," explains Rodriguez. "SaltWise is a much more complex system for customers looking at higher levels of sodium reduction; we work with them on formulations to fine tune. We also have flavoring and texturizing units within Cargill, so we can get synergies."
Bottom line -- is it really possible to reduce the sodium in existing products without affecting the taste or texture? "In most cases, there's a slight flavor change, but you can get pretty close," responds Rodriguez. "By the time you get to a blind tasting, there is usually no preference. But it's difficult and takes commitment and a clear strategy."