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By Aníbal Concha-Meyer, Contributing Editor | 08/10/2012
With more than a third of the country classified as obese, and by most estimates half as much again overweight, the disorders that accompany obesity — especially hypertension — leave increasing numbers of consumers seeking lower-sodium solutions to favorite foods. And as shaky as the science is behind lowering sodium in the diets of healthy people, let's face it: 75 million people with a weight problem are not all that healthy.
Although not all persons struggling with weight will fall prey to hypertension — and not all persons with hypertension are sodium-sensitive — the numbers are such that processors recognize the need to provide low-sodium alternatives.
Many manufacturers are taking an approach of merely reducing the total amount of salt in a product and letting flavors such as garlic and spice hold up the palate. The key is balance. Too little salt and the product will fail no matter how good its intentions.
Natural Snacks LLC (www.naturalsnacks.com), Addison, Ill., provides a selection of low-sodium snacks by naturally reducing the sodium in its products – using little to no salt. According to Christine Brown, marketing manager, the approach involves creating products based on other bold flavors, such as Black Bean Chips, Kettle Cooked potatoes chips or Mexi-Snax tortilla chips. The company offers snacks with 140mg or less of sodium with all-natural ingredients, no preservatives, no MSG, gluten free and no artificial colorings nor flavorings.
A combination of herbs, citrus and other botanicals substitute for salt at the table with products such as B&G Food Inc.'s Mrs. Dash line.
Spices and citrus as alternatives to sodium has been the mainstay of consumer products such as Mrs. Dash (www.mrsdash.com) from B&G Foods Inc., Parsippany, N.J. For more than 20 years, the lady has held a pole position in providing consumers at-the-table alternatives to flavor enhancement via herbs, spice and other botanical ingredients. All Mrs. Dash products are 100 all-natural and salt- and MSG-free. Its seasoning blends are available in 14 different varieties.
Approaches to lowering sodium come in several general categories: sodium replacement, sodium enhancement and plain simple reduction. In previous years, potassium chloride was a "one size fits all" strategy, but with such flaws it led low-sodium foods to be deemed poor substitutes for the real thing.
Replacement and enhancement often come together in today's sodium-lowering methodology. Typically, a non-sodium umami note is brought in to boost a lower-salt formulation. This could be via spices or such protein-based components as a yeast extract.
The use of yeast extracts to replace sodium is purely based on taste rather than function. When salt is removed as an ingredient, the sodium ion is also removed, which previously attributed savory flavor through the salty taste, explains Kevin McDermott, product manager for Savoury Systems International Inc. (www.savourysystems.com), Branchburg, N.J.
"By adding a yeast extract-based ingredient, a formulation can have the savory flavor built back up again through amino acids that contribute umami and kokumi flavor," McDermott says. "This build-up of additional flavor still allows a consumer to experience a positive reaction and perception to the taste profile of a product, without feeling the need of adding more salt."
Yeast extracts also are of value in balancing out mineral salts such as potassium chloride (KCl). Often, when KCl is used, it is easy to pick out the off-notes and bitter notes. "We have too many self-protecting taste buds to clearly mask various bittering flavors," says McDermott. "Yeast extract doesn't carry the off-note often described as metallic in KCl, and can actually function better to mask that note rather than add it. Moreover, yeast extracts are rich in proteins and amino acids."
The company's evaluations have shown that in some soup formulations, a 40-percent reduction of sodium can be achieved at typical application levels, while still maintaining a positive savory flavor profile without the need for more salt. Yeast extracts are based on full yeast protein structures with naturally broken down peptide bonds between the amino acids. They are attained through an autolysis process that allows for active flavoring concentration. At correct usage levels, there should be no off-notes that require masking. The result is flavor functionality in any savory product, such as soups, sauces, snacks or even seasonings.
Another enhancer that is fast gaining popularity is more incidental. Spices, particularly smoked hot chili peppers, have gained attention for their ability to add flavor kicks that can reduce the need for salt. Smoke-dried peppers from Sparkling River Farms (www.sparkling-river.com), Mt. Olive, Ark., contain no sodium and give an excellent boost to the umami characteristics typically associated with high-sodium smoked meats.
According to Sparkling River "head rancher" Fred Gray, there is a variety of ways to use different peppers and pepper preparation methods to compliment or contrast with other ingredients in a particular recipe. "Just as with salt, smoke flavor has a similar effect on other ingredients in most dishes or recipes. While enhancing the other flavors, it does not overpower them when used in an appropriate amount," he notes.
ConAgra Foods Inc.'s "Healthy Choice" line of frozen dinners makes use of stronger flavors from herbs and citrus to allow for lowered sodium.
Different peppers offer different spicy, sweet and salty flavors, behind any heat content that might be present, he says. Any "wet" formulation with a cooking time of 20 minutes or more (to allow for pepper reconstitution and flavor release), such as soups, stews, chilies and sauces, is a candidate for smoke-dried peppers.
Morton Salt Inc. (www.mortonsalt.com), Chicago, has explored sodium reduction solutions for more than 40 years. "Over the years, we've learned that a standard strategy — coupled with sodium alternatives such as the potassium chloride family of ingredients — can provide a roadmap for sodium-reduction success," says Denise Lauer, Morton's director of communications.
The company offers a high-purity potassium chloride, KaliSel. It is a fine-particle-sized product already widely used by the food industry as a partial replacement for salt, replacing up to 33 percent of NaCl in many processed foods without affecting consumer taste acceptance.
KaliSel also functions as a taste enhancer, processing agent, stabilizer, gelling agent or preservative. It is used in the production of a broad range of products including meats, soups, sauces, snacks, dairy, prepared meals, sides, bread and baked goods.
By partially substituting sodium chloride with other mineral salts, food manufacturers can reduce sodium in a cost-effective manner while offering products that deliver the added benefit of potassium, an essential nutrient, or other minerals used.
Other sodium-reduction solutions take advantage of surface area of crystal sizes, in some cases combining different ones for contrast on the palate. Morton Lite Salt Mixture is a 50/50 blend of sodium chloride and potassium chloride with a variety of salt-particle sizes and bulk densities for seasoning blends and topical applications such as snacks.
KCLean Salt is a sodium chloride with potassium chloride offered by Wixon Inc. (www.wixon.com), St. Francis, Wis. It includes a proprietary ingredient to mask bitter metallic aftertastes while delivering the salty taste desired in formulations. The company also offers Wix-Fresh Reduced Sodium System, a flavor modifier and sodium replacer specifically designed for the meat and poultry industry. This product can generate up to 50-percent reduction in sodium in dry and concentrated applications, such as rubs, marinades, injection systems and seasoning blends.
Sodium reduction remains one of the toughest challenges for the food industry today as manufacturers continue to explore solutions that can deliver on core requirements such as taste, nutrition, functionality and value.