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America's Assault on Salt

Sept. 14, 2009
Shaking out sodium looks like the next trans fat for food processors.

Despite some shaky science connecting salt or sodium with hypertension and heart disease, all signs point to sodium reduction being one of the biggest changes coming in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And while home cooks and foodservice will be admonished, food processors are likely to shoulder most of the blame next year.

Americans love sodium, but most of us consume considerably more than we should. We ingest 3,436mg of the stuff per day — almost 50 percent more than the 2,300mg recommendation in the current (2005) USDA Dietary Guidelines for healthy adults. To put that in perspective, one teaspoon of salt weighs 5g and contains about 2,300mg of sodium.

An estimated 29 percent of us have hypertension (high blood pressure) and another 28 percent have pre-hypertension, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). And although there is no definitive proof that sodium actually causes heart disease, there is a perceived link. The National Academy of Science (NAS) recommends a sodium intake level of at least 500mg, but less than 2,300mg a day. Health advocates at AHA and the Centers for Disease Control agree the 2010 Dietary Guidelines should be changed to lower the daily sodium limit to 1,500mg.

Although we use the terms salt and sodium interchangeably, they are different. Sodium combines with chloride to make table salt. Both sodium and chloride are essential nutrients, helping to regulate fluids and keep our muscles (including the heart) moving. Both are classified as electrolytes, which essentially means they conduct electricity in the body, transmitting signals to muscles and nerves, a key factor in making the nervous system work. Sodium, in combination with calcium, magnesium and potassium helps regulate the body’s metabolism and an improper balance of sodium in the body can be fatal.

Likewise, salt in processed foods does much more than provide the salty taste we all crave; it serves as a preservative, inhibits the growth of bacteria, regulates fermentation, enhances color, texture and mouthfeel in foods and helps counter bitter tastes.

Adding a few grains of salt can bring out a food’s natural flavor without contributing a salty taste. Foods with higher levels of sodium do not necessarily taste salty, in fact some baked goods may contain more sodium than some frozen entrees. Foods with surface sodium typically have a saltier taste than foods with incorporated sodium, and foods with less moisture, such as potato chips, generally require more salt than french fries.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, sued in 2005 to get salt off the FDA's list of safe food ingredients. The group says restaurant and processed foods deliver more than three-quarters of the salt people consume, and it has demonized salt as the “single most harmful ingredient in our food supply,” terming it “toxic.”

More notable is the challenge from Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, the force behind the nationwide effort to ban trans fats, and nutrition policy advisor to President Barack Obama. He told attendees at the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Healthy Flavors he may suggest a regulation mirroring a new law in the UK to mandate a dramatic salt reduction (20 percent) in all packaged and processed foods. (He’s also suggesting a national tax of up to 18 percent on sodas and candy.) “We need economic levers to keep the public from making bad food choices,” he says.

Forging ahead to reduce sodium

Food manufacturers and ingredient suppliers are, and have been, searching for new ways to reduce the amount of sodium added to products while still preserving the salty taste consumers crave.

“We’ve been looking at sodium reduction for over 30 years,” says Linda Kragt, technical services manager at Chicago-based Morton Salt, provider of salt for 160 years. “Initial work in the 1960s, mixtures of salt and potassium chloride, was done at Michigan State University,” she says. “As a result of this research, we launched Morton Lite Salt mixture [half sodium chloride and half potassium chloride] for the retail market in the early 1970s.”

Even though Morton saw potential in the food processing industry, “The food industry didn’t become interested in salt reduction until sodium labeling became part of nutritional labeling, which occurred in the 1980s,” she explains. “We did a lot of lower-sodium application work, particularly in the meat and poultry industries because they needed the salt for its functional effects. We did applications in many categories such as baking, snacks, cheese, and fresh pickles.”


But in the early to mid-1990s, processors became more concerned about fat reduction, she recalls. “There are cycles to product development, and in the last three or four years, there’s been a concern for salt reduction.”

It can be very challenging to make low-sodium products, and there is no magic bullet, according to Kragt. “I tell my customers it’s as challenging an assignment as anything you can encounter. These products not only have to reduce sodium and have good functionality, but taste good too,” she says, adding that taste is the most challenging.


“How do you reduce sodium in an application is not an easy question to answer, because there are a lot of parts to it,” says Carlos Rodriguez, marketing manager at Cargill Salt, Minneapolis. “The actual taking out of sodium is easy. We want to make sure it’s done in the right way.”

Cargill looks at it holistically, he explains. “We have a 10-step guide [at 888-385-7258] to help our customers in the whole journey of sodium reduction, because we found they were just reacting. There are lots of questions you have to ask. Do you want it to be a stealth-type reduction? Do you want it as a health platform? How does it fit into your whole portfolio? How do you market the product? Once all that is determined, we work with customers to find the best option from a food formulation standpoint. And then we have to consider, are they [more] worried about cost or providing the best flavor for their customers?”

According to Rodriguez, “Step one is to identify a customer’s goals; then look at the competitive landscape so they don’t fall into any pitfalls. Then we identify the source of sodium in the food application and set targets over time.” You might alienate consumers if you immediately cut sodium in half, he warns. “Salt is more than just flavor; you have to understand salt’s functionality in a product. If you take out salt, how are you going to replace that functionality?”

One relatively painless way to reduce sodium is to remove it and ingredients that contain it when they don’t contribute to taste.

“Phosphates are used in every aspect of processed foods, and the phosphate of choice is sodium phosphate,” says Nadeen Myers, marketing technical services representative at ICL Performance Products LP, St. Louis. “That, in conjunction to everything else, is contributing to sodium intake.”

So ICL developed phosphates with little or no sodium. “Benephos provides all the same functional performance in beverages as sodium polyphosphates, but with an approximate 70 percent reduction in overall sodium. It’s a mixed cation sodium potassium hexametaphosphate. And Levona is a calcium acid pyrophosphate, our counterpart for sodium acidpyrophosphate, the workhorse in the baking industry.”

When you substitute with these products, sodium is reduced yet they give the same functionality in the same types of applications. “Baking customers using Levona find when they substitute calcium salt for sodium salt, they can in some instances make calcium claims,” says Myers, adding, “It’s a two-for. Both products are being well received by the industry.”

Salt solutions

Cargill Salt had developed several solutions for reducing salt and/or sodium. SaltWise, a direct salt substitute, can reduce sodium levels by 25 to 50 percent in products, and can be used in a variety of applications, including meat and poultry processing.

“Our Alberger [salt] is a unique shaped crystal with a wide surface, which adheres better to products,” says Rodriguez. “It provides rapid solubility, which gives a flavor burst to topical applications even though you use less salt.”

Cargill recently introduced Premier potassium chloride, which is the foundation for spinning out many options for sodium reduction. It is suitable for ham and bacon curing, cheeses, beverages, seasoning blends, bakery products, margarine and frozen dough applications. “It has some limitations,” admits Rodriguez. “It’s more expensive than salt, and although it has different flavor characteristics, it’s very close to salt in flavor.”

Morton also has replacements. ”We have two basic grades of granulated potassium chloride products, and one has no additives. It’s food grade and used in both the food and pharmaceutical industries,” says Kragt. “Because that product can cause caking, we also make a product with a conditioner in it, which contains magnesium carbonate, an anticaking agent.”

Morton’s other product is Lite Salt mixture --half sodium chloride and half potassium chloride. “Some of our customers like to add potassium chloride, not necessarily at the 50 percent level, but at whatever level they choose for a customized formulation,” she says.

“Potassium chloride can be part of the low-sodium toolbox; you may be reducing sodium but you might need three or four ingredients to replace it. Potassium chloride can provide some saltiness, helps to provide functional effects and it’s been tested in most food categories. It’s just a question of finding the right levels,” she says. “It increases ionic strength, has functional benefits and enhances the potassium content of foods, which is in keeping with many of the diet recommendations today – you could say it’s a three-for-one ingredient.”

Kragt says there are many more masking agents available today. “They mask potassium chloride or bitter compounds, which is very helpful,” she explains. “I’ve found that potassium chloride can be formula-specific. Even within the same categories, it just depends on the spices, flavors and sweeteners in your formula. Those that do it well, customize ingredients for better-tasting reduced sodium products.”

In response to demand from consumers and food processors for a reduced-sodium product without sacrificing taste, Wixon Inc., St. Francis, Wis., developed KCLean Salt. “Through a breakthrough in technology, we combined sodium chloride with potassium chloride, but added unique proprietary ingredients, removing the bitter metallic aftertaste while delivering the salty taste consumers enjoy,” said Mariano Gascon, vice president of research and development.

Danisco’s Grinsted Salt Pro provides the functional characteristics and flavor of salt, while reducing the sodium content. “By enabling the protein extraction needed to retain key product attributes and maintaining sensory properties, our solution allows us to reduce sodium in a food system by up to 50 percent with great success,” says Tom Rourke, senior business development manager of Danisco’s meat and culinary segment. New Century, Kan.

Based on proprietary technology, SaltTrim from Wild Flavors Inc., Erlanger. Ky., simultaneously blocks the negative tastes of potassium chloride while keeping the true taste and mouthfeel of salt. While some products only block the bitter tastes of potassium chloride, SaltTrim adds back much of the taste and texture unique to salt. It can also deliver dual health benefits when supplemented with potassium chloride.

“We’ve offered reduced-sodium soy sauce for many years,” says Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing manager, foodservice and industrial, at Kikkoman Sales USA Inc., San Francisco. “It started out as a consumer product, but we quickly recognized that foodservice professionals are faced with sodium issues in their establishments, whether they’re commercial or non-commercial. And of course, it became apparent that our manufacturing customers had the same needs.”

So Kikkoman offers Less Sodium Soy Sauce, as well as Preservative-Free Less Sodium Soy Sauce. In 2008, the company introduced Less Sodium Teriyaki Sauce. Its most recent introduction, Ponzu, is a citrus soy sauce. The subtle addition of lemon provides another layer of flavor, while also allowing for less sodium in formulation.

Sometimes sodium reduction doesn’t mean direct replacement. Using Tabasco in place of salt can add flavor while limiting the sodium content of foods, notes Mark Cotter, a foodservice consultant for McIlhenny Co./Tabasco Brand Products, Avery Island, La. “We also recommend the use of Reacted Vegetable Stocks in concentration [or] utilizing spices that do not rely on salt/sodium to enhance the product.”

Processors weigh in

“When our Dei Fratelli brand got started well over 25 years ago, we didn’t add salt to our flagship crushed tomatoes,” says Steve Hirzel, president of Hirzel Canning Co. and Farms, Toledo, Ohio. “As we added items to the line, we made a conscious effort to keep sodium 100mg to 300mg lower than in comparable products. I guess you could say it was somewhat lucky that we positioned ourselves differently.”

Hirzel says there are challenges in reducing sodium. “When you remove salt, you have the potential for dull components within food,” he explains. “Chefs like to use tomato to enhance flavors in cooking. They use a couple of tablespoons of crushed tomato or tomato paste because tomatoes contain natural glutamates. The challenge is if you don’t have salt, how do you get flavors to bounce out? What we’ve done is go back to the raw tomato varieties to get the freshest vine-ripened taste. If you use the best raw product, you don’t have to add as much salt.”

Herzel says the company experimented with potassium chloride, but it left a metallic aftertaste.

Using sea salt is another alternative. “We started using sea salt in some of our products two years ago,” he says. “Consumers love to study the label; they want to know what is in the product, to understand the ingredients and where they come from. Consumers who buy natural products are used to seeing sea salt as an ingredient. The organic trade established sea salt as the salt of choice. Consumers know there are trace minerals in sea salt, so although using sea salt is a little more expensive, we want to accommodate their preferences.”

First Campbell Soup Co. and more recently General Mills’ Progresso brand of soups debuted impressive reduced-sodium products thanks to sea salt.

Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods is actively reducing sodium in prepared foods. “The benefit for the food industry is to provide consumers with what they want. That’s always what we strive to do and certainly is our reason for reducing sodium,” says Nutrition Manager Kristi Reimers.

Taste, manufacturability and consumer acceptance are all challenges in developing foods with less sodium. “The overriding challenge is the simple fact that no suitable salt replacement exists for all applications. Each food type has its own challenges,” she explains. “Is it a topical application like popcorn, or salt in solution like soup? They each present challenges in functionality, food quality, safety and flavor. You can have all of those in place, but if it doesn’t taste good, consumers won’t accept it, therefore, we can’t keep it on the market. That has been the downfall of reduced sodium foods over history.”

She admits, “We haven’t been able to crack the code to make lower-sodium foods taste as good as their traditional counterparts. The biggest challenge is finding products that consumers will accept. We have substitutions for trans fat, substitutions for taking out fat. There is that same expectation now for salt – just take it out. Technology does not provide for that across the board in foods, in ways consumers will accept.”

Reimers believes the food industry, the government and individuals must work together to implement these changes. “Some blame the food manufacturer, but we are trying to do our part. Sometimes we forget that salt will always be sold on the marketplace and there will always be salt shakers in consumer’s homes. So it is silly to believe that all the responsibility lies with the food manufacturers. With all three of these entities working together, over time, small changes will be made. That’s the only way we’ll see progress that’s feasible and sustainable – small changes over a long time.”

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