Food Processors Chip Away at Salt

Salty snacks present unique challenges for sodium reduction.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Americans trying to cut sodium from their diets may be surprised to learn that bread, not chips or pretzels, is a leading culprit. The Centers for Disease Control studied 7,227 people and found that bread and rolls are the top source of sodium in America's diet, more than double the percentage of savory snacks.

"Breads and rolls aren't really saltier than many of the other foods, but people tend to eat a lot of them," said Mary Cogswell, a CDC senior scientist who co-authored the report.

Along with bread, which accounted for more than 7 percent of respondents' daily sodium intake, the CDC found that just 10 foods — cold cuts, pizza, poultry, soups, sandwiches, cheese pasta dishes, mixed meat dishes (such as meatloaf) and savory snacks — each added between 3 and 4 percent of the subjects' daily sodium consumption.

"Potato chips, pretzels, and popcorn — which we think of as the saltiest foods in our diet — are only No. 10," said CDC Director Thomas Frieden.

Perhaps that 10th place finish is not so surprising, because the snack food industry has been chipping away diligently to remove salt without affecting taste. But processors in all categories of food have been working hard to reduce sodium in their formulations.

The Institute of Medicine and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans both provide breakouts of sodium contribution in the diet, including snack categories such as grain-based desserts (3.4 percent), potato/corn/other chips (1.8 percent), quick breads (1.7 percent) and crackers (1.3 percent).

Not just flavor, but cost
The biggest challenges for creating reduced-sodium foods involve flavor and cost. "First, let's look at flavor," says Jackie Van Norden, product line manager - food processing at Minneapolis-based Cargill Salt (www.cargill.com). "Often in salty snack foods a large portion of sodium content is the salt applied topically to provide a nice, initial salty burst of flavor. If the salt is reduced it will minimize this flavor burst, and if a salt replacer is used, it may also impact the flavor profile.

"The second major issue is cost. Salt is a great value considering the price and all of its functional roles that come with it. Just removing it from the formula not only alters the sensory properties, but it also drives up the formulation cost."

"We've done a lot of work with low sodium solutions in the marketplace, but they are double, triple, quadruple the cost of salt," says Joe D'Auria, senior food technologist at Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings (www.spicetec.com), Cranbury, N.J., a ConAgra Foods company.

If a consumer sees low sodium, low fat or low sugar, their first thought is the product won't taste as good. So first, we have to get past that perception. Another is taste. Basically, nothing beats the flavor of salt. If someone had invented a salt substitute that was good for you, they would be rich today.

– Joe D'Auria, Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings

"In the snack industry, we are trying to save pennies for the customer, so you aren't going to take out something that costs 20 cents a pound and replace it with something that costs $3 a pound. Even if you use a lot less of the salt replacer, it is not usually cost effective."

Salt contributes more than just flavor enhancement and economy. "When reducing sodium in a dough-based snack, the main challenge is in maintaining the structure of the dough system and overall flavor impact," says Emil Shemer, director, food solutions, Indianapolis-based Sensient Flavors LLC (www.sensientflavors.com), a unit of Sensient Technologies Corp. "Salt provides both functional and taste aspects to a dough system, thus both have to be considered and balanced when reducing sodium.

"There is a limit to how much salt can be reduced in a dough-based snack system before the dough begins to break down and negatively impact the manufacturing process." He notes that Sensient has managed a 30 percent reduction in sodium per serving for crackers while maintaining dough functionality and delivering flavor impact through the application of salt enhancer technology.

"Whether working with a dough-based snack system or a topical based system for snacks, it is important to perform sensory profiling of the product so that the complex flavor attributes can be evaluated and determinations can be made about how the sodium reduction is affecting the overall flavor profile and/or texture of the product," emphasizes Shemer. "Then it is possible to change, build back and/or compensate for any notes that become enhanced or reduced with the reduction of salt."

Another challenge is consumer perception. For every consumer who wants to consume less sodium there is one who does not want his favorite snack altered in any way.

"If a consumer sees low sodium, low fat or low sugar, their first thought is the product won't taste as good. So first, we have to get past that perception. ," says D'Auria. "Another is taste. Basically, nothing beats the flavor of salt. If someone had invented a salt substitute that was good for you, they would be rich today."

One solution is for product developers to lower the sodium gradually. "I don't mean 50-40-30 percent. You can do it 5 percent at a time, and I think many snack companies are doing that now without calling it out," D'Auria continues. "By reducing salt 5 percent every couple of months, you can gradually get down to a manageable level, while weaning consumers off higher salt levels."

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