Challenges of Lowering Sodium

Feb. 26, 2010
Consumers want to be assured that lower sodium does not mean less taste.

There is significant confusion and concern among consumers regarding acceptable sodium levels in the food and beverages they regularly consume, according to a recent study of 800 consumers by Health Focus International (HFI), St. Petersburg, Fla.

While 65 percent surveyed express some concern about sodium intake, 79 percent do not know the recommended daily intake of 1,500mg to 2,400mg. So it's no surprise that Americans consume about 50 percent more than the USDA Guidelines for healthy Americans, some 3,436mg per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Consuming extra sodium is easily explained since one teaspoon of salt (about 5mg) contains about 2,300mg of sodium.

Only 29 percent of respondents to the HFI survey look for the sodium content consistently in each individual food they eat. Even those who monitor sodium do so intuitively, mostly by avoiding certain foods or categories (such as french fries, hamburgers and chicken from a fast-food restaurant and, at the retail level, frozen meals, cured/processed meats, savory snacks and canned soups), rather than understanding their total daily intake.

Some consumers are not concerned for health reasons, but rather for cosmetic and personal reasons. The perception among women that excess sodium causes water weight gain is a greater motivator for avoiding sodium than high blood pressure.

Most shoppers say they are interested in purchasing lower sodium products. However, for those shoppers not interested, the clear barrier is still the perception the foods won't taste as good. Thus, even though most consumers are able to correctly identify foods high in sodium, only one-third are likely to avoid these foods.

"It's important for people to eat less salt," says Darwin Labarthe, director of the CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, who suggests no more than 1,500mg per day for people with high-blood pressure, blacks and those over 40 years old. "People who adopt a heart-healthy pattern that includes a diet low in sodium and rich in potassium and calcium can improve their blood pressure." He added the CDC, along with other government agencies such as the FDA, would work with food manufacturers and chain restaurants to reduce sodium levels in the food supply.

It's notable, according to the survey, that 78 percent of respondents believe sea salt is a healthier alternative. And, when presented with a list of 10 potential sodium claims -- such as "low sodium," "sodium-free" and "reduced salt" – people showed very little difference between the levels of interest in each claim. However, the claim that resonated the most was "reduced salt, same taste." Consumers clearly want to be assured that lower sodium does not mean less taste.

For fear about driving away consumers worried about taste, food companies may not want to remind them in supermarkets and on packaging that they are reducing salt. That was the tack taken by Campbell Soup last year when it reformulated its oldest product, Condensed Tomato Soup. There was no mention of the 32 percent sodium reduction on the label, but word-of-mouth got the message to shoppers who cared about sodium reduction.

Unilever found in a 2007 study in the Netherlands that if consumers were given two identical samples of Lipton Cup-a-Soup and they were told one had 25 percent less sodium, the majority of respondents said the soup labeled as low-salt tasted inferior.

Challenges for the industry

Sodium is critical for food safety and product stability. Food processors and their suppliers have been working on salt reduction for decades, but there have been formulation and taste challenges to overcome. ConAgra Foods, Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever are among the food companies that have made great strides. And Sara Lee has just announced a 20 percent reduction of sodium goal over the next five years.

The processor must evaluate the functionality of salt in the product when looking to lower sodium and meet consumer demand, according to Linda Kragt, technical services manager for Chicago-based Morton Salt. "In some cases, salt can provide multiple functions. For example, in bread, salt enhances taste, strengthens gluten and moderates yeast activity." The next step, she advises, "is to look at the sodium contributions of other sodium-containing ingredients such as sodium phosphates and chemical leavening systems."

Morton offers Potassium Chloride USP/FCC Granular, a potassium chloride product that contains no additives and may be considered a more natural product, says Kragt. "In addition, Potassium Chloride, Food Grade with Conditioner, a potassium chloride with magnesium carbonate anti-caking agent is available for processors requiring a free-flowing product."

Potassium chloride is still considered one of the best alternatives to salt for food processors. "Potassium chloride provides saltiness, but its metallic taste limits its use as a total replacement for salt in food products," she explains. "In reduced-sodium formulas, it must be combined with some salt." And she adds, "Many flavor houses now provide masking agents that help suppress off-tastes contributed by potassium chloride."

Morton Lite Salt Mixture, half sodium chloride and half potassium chloride, which is available to consumers, also is used by processors as is or can be mixed with salt to the proportion of potassium chloride that is needed in a formulation.

A gradual approach is best if you want to reduce the sodium in existing products, according to Kragt. "Consumers often do not accept large cuts in salt levels because the products are too different from the familiar product they know and enjoy," she says.

Some categories of foods and beverages don't take well to sodium reduction. "Processed meats are always more challenging, because salt has multi-functional effects, and a variety of ingredients may be needed to improve yield and provide an equivalent shelf life," explains Kragt. "Using potassium chloride can help increase ionic strength, which helps restore functionality in those products when salt is reduced.

"There is no magic bullet for sodium reduction," Kragt points out. "Use of potassium chloride can be formula-specific, so levels of substitution that may work in one product may not be as acceptable in another. Developers may have to adjust spices and herbs in a formula and add masking flavors to improve the flavor profile."

As for the most important challenge in lower sodium products, "Consumers expect healthy products to still deliver on taste," she adds. "Processors who have been the most successful at sodium reduction evaluate each formula to optimize taste by using ingredients that can enhance saltiness and balance flavor."

Set the objectives

"The first step in sodium reduction is to understand first and foremost your strategy and set the objectives you want to meet," says Carlos Rodriguez, marketing manager for Minneapolis-based Cargill Salt ( "Many companies now are setting their objectives at what the New York City Public Health Dept. is recommending [lowering salt intake in packaged foods and restaurants by 25 percent in the next five years]. After that, it is really understanding your product, and taking a step back to ask, what's in our product and what is adding the sodium into it?"

Rodriguez explains that sodium can come from multiple sources, not just salt. "Sodium can come from different flavoring or texturizing agents, so you have to really understand all the nuances of any ingredients being added. Then you have to ask, what target am I trying to reach, am I optimizing my salt so that it is only being used for what it needs to be used for, and what level can I cut out and still maintain that taste?

"For products that are not high in sodium, you may only need to drop it 10-15 percent, and there might be ways to get there without more costly flavor/system solutions. When you are looking at reductions of 10-25 percent, we've seen a lot of success with the use of something as simple as Premier Potassium Chloride. We also have Alberger salt, which has a unique property to it with low bulk density in a wider surface area in topical applications such as salty snacks. It has rapid solubility, so when it hits the tongue, the flavor pops. You get a much higher sensation and perception of salt without using as much."

There is a point when sodium reduction becomes more complex. "You can hit a certain level of sodium reduction when you have to start taking a look at complex salt replacers," says Rodriguez. "When you take out something that affects functionality or flavor, you have to figure out how to replace those back into the formula. It can be a long process when you look at how formulations are done and the costing. Taking out salt causes the price to go up. The ultimate thing our customers want is a one-to-one replacement that doesn't affect taste and price.

"When you get to a 50 percent reduction, you get into flavor modifiers or more complex systems because you are trying to suppress bitter, enhance salty and do more than just reduce sodium," explains Rodriguez. "SaltWise is a much more complex system for customers looking at higher levels of sodium reduction; we work with them on formulations to fine tune. We also have flavoring and texturizing units within Cargill, so we can get synergies."

Bottom line -- is it really possible to reduce the sodium in existing products without affecting the taste or texture? "In most cases, there's a slight flavor change, but you can get pretty close," responds Rodriguez. "By the time you get to a blind tasting, there is usually no preference. But it's difficult and takes commitment and a clear strategy."

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