Tools of the sodium reduction trade

by Karen Weisberg
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Food and beverage product developers have numerous tools at their disposal to reduce the sodium content of foods and beverages. The challenge many face is selecting the solution that will work best within the constraints of the application, budget and processing capabilities. Adding to the challenge is the pace with which sodium reduction technologies are evolving.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but since public health officials have promoted the need for some consumers to reduce the amount of sodium in their diets, ingredient suppliers have been working to provide product developers with tools to reduce the sodium content in formulated products. There are several technologies that have been developed, but Christopher Loss, Ph.D., said there are no silver bullets. As a professor in the Department of Culinary Science and director of Menu Research and Development at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY, Dr. Loss said “reducing sodium is only one of the things we need to do (for better health), but in general, it seems like a good idea.”

Ironically, consumers don’t taste all of the sodium in their food — people only perceive about 20%. So when it comes to flavor perception, “it’s a very personal interaction,” Dr. Loss said. “Neurobiologists and other scientists recognize there are extreme differences in our individual perceptions of food. Now we’re talking about genomes and one of the largest genome families is the flavor genome — so there’s this extreme variability of how we perceive food.”

Some consumers tend to think “flavor” is a molecule in food, but Dr. Loss said flavor perception is in our heads.

“Since flavor is ultimately a ‘top down’ process, you have to think about the psychological factors,” he said.

Dr. Loss and the Shirley Cheng, a culinary arts professor at the CIA, were interested in seeing if they could amplify the perception of salt or enhance a product’s overall flavor and allow them to reduce the salt component “by creating a more multi-sensorial experience,” he said.

Ms. Cheng had been studying the flavor profile of huajiao, also known as Sichuan pepper, that when consumed creates a tingling sensation. She found such kinesthetic compounds as capsicum in chili peppers cause tactile sensations in the mouth. Ms. Cheng and Dr. Loss set out to tingle the pain receptors in the tongue.

“Shirley thought if we add huajiao it may amplify the perception of salt since it causes a tingling sensation,” Dr. Loss said.

“Mala” is one of the flavor profiles in Szechuan cuisine. “Ma” refers to the tingle sensation people perceive from the huajiao and “la” refers to the heat from the capsicum in the chili pepper. Both elicit a heating/buzzing sensation on the tongue.

The two researchers aimed to develop seasoning profiles designed to distract the palate. They chose french fries as their initial target.

“Shirley added ‘ma’ and the ‘la’ in a seasoning blend with less sodium,” Dr. Loss said. “Our tasting panel found the hedonic quality was the same with reduced sodium.”

Potassium offers potential

Dr. Loss iterated his contention that there is no silver bullet to sodium reduction.

“On its own, potassium chloride is often perceived as slightly bitter/metallic, so that means it has to be used in a percentage so as not to change our liking for the food,” he said. “Yes, potassium chloride is in our tool box; we should look at it as one approach to reducing sodium — and we have to know how consumers will respond to it.”

At Nu-Tek Food Science, taking a technology-driven solution for sodium reduction for processed foods was the plan and the result has been positive, with sodium reduction by as much as 50% in some products without sacrificing taste, said Don Mower, president and chief operating officer of the Minnetonka, Minn.-based company. In fact, one of the company’s products, Salt for Life, which is a consumer product, has 136 milligrams of sodium per-serving vs. 590 milligrams of sodium in regular table salt and more than 500 milligrams of sodium in other sea salts. Salt for Life is intended to be used like regular salt with the same amounts in recipes.

Credit for the Nu-Tek sodium reduction solution goes to Sam Rao, a 40-year food service industry veteran.

“After Dr. Sam retired, he worked with our chairman and c.e.o. Tom Manuel to address sodium reduction differently, that is, with a potassium chloride-based solution,” Mr. Mower said.

Noting that most American consumers consume about twice as much sodium as they should, but only about half as much potassium as they need — the substitution should be a good thing, he said.

“Potassium chloride is just another salt and we have to call it that on the label — but it’s just potassium.”

Josh Hobbs, Nu-Tek’s Internal Research Chef, said potassium chloride is identified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the Food and Drug Administration, with a history of being safe.

Nu-Tek’s proprietary technology is designed to block the metallic taste caused by potassium. As a result, food manufacturers may use it in larger amounts.

“You can take out one pound of salt and replace it with our Nu-Tek (solution),” Mr. Mower said. “You’ve reduced salt by about 40% to 50% — it’s an incredibly elegant solution.”

Today, the Nu-Tek salt reduction product is out in the marketplace as a component of many brands Mr. Mower said.

“Food manufacturers don’t want their competition to know what they are doing, but we’re working with 18 of the top 20 global consumer packaged foods companies as well as with five of the top 10 QSRs,” he said.

“There’s not a 10¢ solution for salt,” Mr. Mower said. “Expect that if you’re reducing sodium in food, it will be about 1¢ per-pound higher, or about 1/8¢ more per-serving.

Particle engineering

Changing the shape and, more importantly, optimizing the bulk density of the salt crystal is the name of the game changer in salt reduction. SODA-LO Salt Microspheres is produced by Tate & Lyle, the Hoffmann Estates, Ill.-based ingredient manufacturer. Winner of the Institute of Food Technologists’ Innovation Award 2013, SODA-LO Salt Microspheres is a sodium-reducing ingredient that’s been in the marketplace since 2010 and commercialized since September 2012.

Although people swallow the whole salt crystal, only part of it interacts with the taste buds. But the tiny, hollow spheres of SODA-LO Salt Microspheres, “interact with our taste buds more effectively and dissolve more efficiently,” said Judy Turner, Tate & Lyle’s director of specialty food ingredient applications. “You get the clean salt taste you love but consume less of it.”

Since consumers get most of their salt from processed foods, Ms. Turner, along with others on staff, including Justin Kanthak, manager of culinary development and corporate chef with Specialty Food Ingredients, partner with food manufacturer customers.

“SODA-LO can be labeled as ‘salt’ on the ingredient statement because it is salt,” Ms. Turner said. “Think of SODA-LO as a hollow sphere like a ping pong ball vs. a solid crystal of salt, like a golf ball.”

Mr. Kanthak added, “You’ll be able to reduce salt content because you taste the outside of the hollow sphere. At the end of the day, we’re providing sodium reduction without sacrificing flavor.”

Customers may expect anywhere from a 25% to 50% sodium reduction, depending upon how far they are in their pathway to sodium reduction.

“We see a lot of our customers start by just reducing salt, but at some point it impacts the products flavor or functionality,” Ms. Turner said. “That’s when you need SODA-LO Salt Microspheres that tastes, labels and functions like salt because it is salt.”

Clean label focus

Kikkoman markets its NFE (Natural Flavor Enhancer) as a sodium reduction option that also allows food processors to maintain a clean label.

To produce NFE, Kikkoman began with the essential elements of its soy sauce and, through a proprietary brewing process, they reduced the typical soy sauce flavor, aroma and color to create a neutral savory flavor booster that does not add a pronounced Asian or soy sauce perception.

Overall, food processors may reduce sodium content by 30% to 50% without a loss of flavor intensity when they add umami-rich Kikkoman NFE liquid or either of the two powder versions.

“Our product is all the natural acids that occur when you ferment food — water, wheat, soy beans and salt — those are the ingredients of our Natural Flavor Enhancer,” said Joe Leslie, industrial sales marketing manager. “These flavor enhancers work best with milder flavor products where you don’t want the color or flavor of soy sauce.”

The sweet side of sodium reduction

Fruit is also an intriguing option when it comes to sodium reduction.

“Fruit is a flavor enhancer (and) by using fruit chefs can use less salt,” said Dieter Preiser, CEC, AAC, corporate chef for the Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif. Mr. Preiser, who was the Research Chefs Association’s first president in 1996, often creates fruit salsas or chutneys to top or accompany pork, chicken and fish.

“When you add flavor and more spice, you can use less salt in the preparation,” he said.

Mr. Preiser is especially fond of preparing a pepper jelly for a rounder flavor.

“You combine lime juice, a bit of cilantro, plus a bit of diced bell pepper for a bit of color – or you can leave out the cilantro – then put the ‘salsa’ on top of the protein.”

Using fruits such as pineapple and peaches also works as a salt substitute in rice pilaf and various other rice dishes.

“Acids from pineapple as well as from other fruits, when used in cooking, enhance the salt flavor,” said Rick Perez, a corporate chef with Dole.

On balance, salt and sugar are the cheapest flavor enhancers, Mr. Preiser said, “and using sugar from fruit — a natural product — helps reduce the need for salt.”

There may not be a silver bullet, but Americans may finally take heart that manufacturers now have many tools to effectively reduce sodium content in innovative ways.
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