It's not a new idea, this effort by food processors to remove sodium from products without anyone noticing. It's been six years since Campbell Soup Co. began pulling salt out of its most popular products. But with so many consumers in the habit of equating saltiness with tastiness, processors are continually looking for ways to lower sodium in formulas without losing the flavorful punch.
The classic replacement ingredient for sodium chloride is potassium chloride, which is very similar in flavor and function. It is an excellent choice for the small segment of consumers who have a potassium deficiency, and it was in fact developed for that purpose. But for the general population, excess potassium can lead to a different but no-less serious set of health concerns.
Sea salt has become popular in culinary circles in recent years. Because its crystal structure is different from that of iodized processed salt, there is evidence that it provides a heightened salt flavor-sensation. Ergo, use less but get the same effect.
Since this difference was discovered and consumers have become familiar with it, at least two global ingredient companies have introduced processed salt products with similar attributes. Tate and Lyle this year unveiled Soda-Lo, a salt microsphere -- a hollow particulate about one-tenth the size of a standard grain of salt for more comprehensive binding to taste receptors on the palate. The maximized surface area allows a 25-50 percent reduction in usage.
Cargill Salt for some time has offered Alberger flake salt -- tiny, multi-faceted crystals created from a process that starts with a hollow pyramid shape. Rapid solubility gives Alberger Salt a flavor burst when used in topical applications.
"Salt is truly a unique compound, and food products are very complex in terms of sensory attributes (e.g. taste, texture)," says Janice Johnson, salt food applications technical service manager, with Cargill, Wayzata, Minn. "Therefore, food products have to be examined on a case-by-case basis to ensure the attributes are not compromised by the sodium reductions."
Another logical way to tackle that is to add more flavor so that the salt is not missed so much. Flavor enhancers can help accomplish this, and have done so for years. More recently sea salt and proprietary salt products with sea-salt like crystals have also been introduced to the fray.
One way of making foods more flavorful is to add or to enhance sensory attributes such as umami and kokumi, says Joe Formenak, director of new product development at Ajinomoto, Itasca, Ill. While most food makers are familiar with umami, kokumi, the concept of a savory "yumminess" that comes from Japanese culinary tradition, might be less familiar, having been identified more recently.
"Kokumi is like the concept of letting stew simmer," Formenak says. "The idea is that all the parts enhance one another and the whole becomes greater than the parts."
Ajinomoto describes kokumi as "deliciousness," and a "blend of initial flavor impact, continuity and roundness."
The company offers a product called Koj-Aji which can be used to enhance kokumi in various foods including sauces, dressings, processed meats and snacks. The company also manufactures and markets monosodium glutamate (MSG), a product derived from the fermentation of sugars that has been used as a salt substitute for more than a century.
Formenak says MSG remains a valuable tool for lowering sodium in formulations and that it has broad applications in savory foods.
"Typically, say you a have product that is 1 percent salt—that is a moderate level," he says. "What you can do is add MSG at .25 percent and pull the salt back to .25 to .50 percent. So you can realistically accomplish a 25 to 50 percent reduction in sodium by using MSG."
Of course MSG has for years been associated with specific health reactions. Although none of them has been linked scientifically, food manufacturers must list it on ingredient panels, and many consumers see it as red flag.
Cargill has developed more than 20 sodium reduction solutions and gives recommendations on solutions for key categories, such as meats, dairy (cheese), soups, sauces and bakery products. Products are designed to help deliver the flavor and other functional attributions of salt.
"One of our more recent product introductions in the sodium reduction space is FlakeSelect functional system. [It can be] an agglomeration of sea salt or salt together with potassium chloride into one crystal or potassium chloride alone to make it into more functional products," Johnson says. "The crystals produced in the FlakeSelect process are higher in surface area, which offers improved performance in adherence, bendability and solubility, which can improve their performance in food systems."
Formenak points out that MSG, Koji Aji (and products like FlakeSelect) solve the problem from different angles. There's no reason why a food scientist shouldn't experiment with a combination of these approaches to reduce sodium yet keep the food product full, rich and flavorful.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.