Salt is a simple and ubiquitous molecule sodium + chloride yet a complicated problem for food processors.
By now, most processors know that the call to lower dietary sodium across the board does not match up with the science of sodium and the healthy human body. As has been reported before, the need for healthy people to restrict the salt they eat is not supported by the results of decades of studies, when considering those studies that take into account all variables and what constitutes a clinically established link between an ingredient and a long-term condition or disease.
However, Americans still are exerting pressure on processors to cut back on the salt they put into foods, and consumer demand is a powerful force indeed. Also, the prevalence of obesity an obviously non-healthy state is so widespread that the number of consumers who could possibly gain some medical benefit from cutting back on their salt numbers could approach the tens of millions.
These factors also intersect with the non-flavor-centered functional uses of salt in food product formulations. Salt is a powerful antimicrobial and preservative and lowers the need for artificial solutions to these food safety and health requirements.
Previous approaches to lowering salt began with a focus on replacement and enhancement technologies. “In regards to sodium reduction in foods, some of the first flavor technologies were aimed at enhancing the taste of food, what one would call taste modifiers,” explains Aaron Rasmussen, a research chef and flavor scientist for Bell Flavors and Fragrances Inc., Northbrook, Ill.
Replacement usually means working with potassium chloride. While KCl is “a sodium-free salt that enhances flavors in a similar taste mechanism as table salt, it leaves a lingering bitter aftertaste,” notes Rasmussen.
“For example, for reduced-sodium meat products, potassium chloride is typically used to provide saltiness,” agrees Karri Santamaria, a manager of specialty carbohydrates for Cargill Inc., Minneapolis. “However, in most one-to-one replacements in formulations, using potassium chloride alone may result in that bitter and metallic aftertaste.”
Rasmussen points to natural flavors that can be used to “help cut short that lingering bitterness and mask it, while still enhancing overall flavor.” But he also adds that “many consumers are driving manufacturers to cleaner, more ‘natural’ labels, and many manufacturers are now looking for alternatives to potassium chloride. Then, there are natural flavors that function in much the same role monosodium glutamate (MSG) does, enhancing already present flavor compounds while creating a sensation of fullness or umami.”
Rasmussen points out that, while such replacers “can achieve up to a 30 percent reduction in sodium,” they “are not able to provide the same functionality of salt in a product.”
For natural salt replacers, flavor enhancement also has come from uses of alternate flavorings such as herbs and citrus. This is what has driven products such as Mrs. Dash’s line of salt substitutes. While these work well as replacements at the table, they do not as easily fill in for sodium chloride in large-scale production.
Swapping saltiness with umami has increased the position of soy sauce and its derivatives, as well as yeast extracts But two recent shifts in salt-reduction technology have shown great promise, letting manufacturers look at the functionality of salt from a completely different viewpoint. They include the use of carbohydrates that normally act as sweeteners as well as the use of another sense entirely, that of aroma.
Cargill’s Trehalose is a sugar disaccharide that actually enhances saltiness. “Trehalose has a unique ability to mute the bitter and metallic taste while enhancing saltiness,” explains Santamaria. “It provides a more balanced sensory profile and increases the sensory acceptance overall allowing food manufacturers to achieve higher sodium reduction goals.”
In sensory tests on hot dogs, Cargill scientists were able to achieve favorable acceptance on a weiner with a 50 percent reduction in sodium. “In flavor-neutral formulations, such as processed poultry, we were able to develop a 39 percent reduced-sodium product,” she says. “These sodium reduction levels are particularly important for inclusion in school lunch programs.”
For meat applications, Trehalose is a unique carbohydrate that can potentially suppress protein denaturation, balance the overall sensory profile and increase yield, according to Santamaria. “Trehalose can benefit many products at use levels as low as 1 percent,” she says. “It can easily be added to many current product formulations."
“The newest generation of sodium reduction flavors at Bell Flavors and Fragrances contains no sodium or potassium chloride,” says Rasmussen. “Instead, we use natural aroma compounds.” The key, Rasmussen explains, is to use such aroma compounds “at subthreshold levels that work synergistically to enhance the already present flavors in a food product, without adding any off notes.”
Such aroma compounds already have been tested in many applications such as soups, sauces, seasonings and dressings, and with up to a 40 percent reduction in sodium, Rasmussen says. “For example, we have achieved a 40 percent reduction of sodium in breakfast sausage, with panelist preference actually turning toward the reduced-sodium test sausage. They reported an overall more rounded, savory profile in that test."