Technical Service Lead
New sodium and potassium guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) in January have food manufacturers looking for ways to respond without compromising taste, texture or shelf life.
The guidelines call for adults to consume less than 2,000 mg sodium (5 g salt) and at least 3,510 mg potassium each day. In the WHO's first-ever sodium guidelines for children, it recommends a downward adjustment of sodium according to the child's energy requirements.
The guidelines differ from current US Department of Agriculture guidelines, which call for healthy adults not in at risk populations to consume less than 2,300 mg sodium and at least 4,700 mg potassium daily. A diet low in sodium and high in potassium can reduce the risk of high blood pressure.
The guidelines have far-reaching effects, because salt has key functional roles in so many foods, particularly processed ones. Processed meat, dairy, snacks, cereals, condiments, canned soup and yeast-leavened bakery items all rely on salt for flavor enhancement, microbial management or modification of protein. Processing also reduces potassium levels in many foods.
Fortunately, when salt is reduced or removed from food, potassium chloride can fill those functional roles and impart a saline taste in a 1:1 to a 1:1.3 substitution (salt to potassium chloride), as well as address concerns about underconsumption of potassium.
To determine how to respond to the new WHO guidelines, food manufacturers first need to consider their product's attributes and identify their goals. A good place to start is to decide target levels of sodium and potassium and labeling goals. Then it's time to consider implications such as taste and microbial management.
To help our customers understand the implications of sodium reduction for their product, Cargill often manufactures a prototype product and uses a sensory panel to evaluate taste, smell and texture over time.
For example, if you are considering a reduced-sodium ham, we would manufacture a prototype made with one of our sodium-reduction solutions. We would then have a sensory panel taste the ham two or three times over the typical 90-day shelf life to see if taste or texture are retained and if they compare favorably to the full-sodium version of the product.
At the same time, we would test the product for spoilage organisms (micro-organisms that cause undesirable sensory effects, such as, slime to form) and check yield to see if it remains the same over time.
Because product pilots can be costly and disruptive to run in a functioning food-manufacturing plant, Cargill has pilot plants for bakery, snacks and cereals, beverage and meat. For cheese, we have an excellent relationship with external research institutes, such as the Wisconsin Center of Dairy Research. Once we have a winning product, we work with the customer to set up test runs in their own facility.
Cargill's sodium-reduction solutions and its broad range of technical expertise help food manufacturers align their products with the WHO's new guidelines—as seamlessly and quickly as possible. Because when our customers are able to make great-tasting reduced-sodium, high-potassium products that enhance health, they're making it easier to live healthier. And we think that makes us worth our salt or, in this case, potassium chloride.
Janice Johnson, PhD, Food Applications and Technical Service Lead for Cargill Salt, has been with the company for the last 10 of her 16 years in the industry.