Salt Pinches Back

While a closer look at sodium means processors may now feel better looking for their long-lost shaker of salt, consumers still are taking their wariness to the checkout counter.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., and David Feder, R.D., Technical Editors

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Last April, in the Institute of Medicine Report on "Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the U.S.," Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Assn., stated, "The over-consumption of sodium is a leading culprit in fueling high blood pressure, which is a primary risk factor for heart disease and stroke." She called for a gradual reduction of salt in the food supply.

There were two assumptions at work in this reiteration of a long-standing belief by the anti-salt bandwagon, facts notwithstanding. First, that science actually supports the contention that sodium intake among healthy persons is connected to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. The second is that, as written in the report, "sodium reduction across the food supply will make it easier for consumers to eat healthier food options."

In the case of the first, the hypothesis has been insupportable. After decades of research and thousands of studies, science has not been able to establish a definitive connection between intake of dietary sodium by healthy persons and increased disease risk. (Lately, scientific "opinion" has begun swinging in the opposite direction.)

The second assumption was recently shown to be 180 degrees wrong — by one of the leading anti-salt proponents, no less. Walt Willett, M.D., Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, showed sodium consumption to be unchanged since the 1950s while incidence of hypertension shot up. That Americans have continued eating 8g or so of salt daily in spite of the constant negative sodium campaigning shows we crave the savory flavor of salt.

"[The reversal on sodium] is completely consistent with what we, as an industry, have been saying," says Jerry Poe, director of R&D and technical services for Compass Minerals International Inc. (www.compassminerals.com), Overland Park, Kan. "Carbs, fat, salt, sugar — for years ‘experts' told us faulty assumptions as if they were facts. Then, 20 years later we get a mea culpa from them. There are enough studies to indicate this will happen again. I don't know about you, but I'm investing in a salt shaker company."

So … what's a processor to do? Basically, follow the laws of supply and demand. Consumers are demanding salty flavor and a lower sodium number on the label, whether or not they are in the mere 4 percent or so of the population for whom lowering sodium could have some possible benefit. But technology has advanced far enough that solutions to lower sodium numbers on labels sacrifice very little flavor and employ some interesting new approaches.

Shape of things to come
PepsiCo Inc. (www.pepsico.com), Purchase, N.Y., had a significant challenge: Salt is one of only three ingredients in its Lay's Classic potato chips. To overcome this, the R&D team focused on new concepts about how the perception of taste reacts to different shapes of salt crystals.

Working with scientists at research institutions and companies across the globe, PepsiCo researchers looked at various shapes of salt crystals to find out which dissolve more efficiently in the mouth. (According to PesiCo chemists, typically, only about 20 percent of the salt on a potato chip is tasted on the tongue, with the rest being swallowed without being tasted.)

At first, they tried powdering salt to better coat the tongue. While that technique gave the flavor more intensity, it peaked and faded too rapidly. Instead, PepsiCo developed a new salt with smaller crystals but of a different shape that could allow for a reduction of about a quarter of sodium levels for its potato chips. The only way the new salt differs from traditional salt is the shape of its crystals.

Another way in which salt's structure can make a difference is through its chemical composition. Taste is in part a function of reactions to metallic ions binding to taste receptors. Although virtually all salt is 97-99 percent sodium chloride, the few tenths of a percent of other minerals bind differently and can create more intense, different nuances of flavor. This intensity is why some companies have used sea salt to lower the sodium numbers without diminishing taste.

In 2006, Campbell Soup Co. (www.campbellsoup.com), Camden, N.J., started using sea salt in its Healthy Request Soups for just this purpose. But the 142-year-old company never fully hopped on the anti-salt bandwagon; which was a good strategy, considering officials just last month said they would return the salt to some of their formulations. (See our news report on Campbell Rethinking Sodium, Other Things)

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