Who Needs Salt?

Yeast extracts, improved potassium chloride, even spices can provide the flavor enhancement once are unique to salt.

By Aníbal Concha-Meyer, Contributing Editor

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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.

Salt Free Mrs. Dash
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.

Sodium alternative alternatives

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.

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