One hundred years ago, my grandparents used salt to cure meat to feed their family for the winter. Forty years ago, my brothers took salt tablets while putting up hay. They sweat all of the salt out of their system and needed the extra salt to maintain their physical strength. These uses of salt are a fading memory. Today, sodium content is under attack by the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Salt is an important nutrient. But like most things, when consumed in excess, salt, and the resulting sodium content, can lead to serious health problems. Hypertension and heart disease come to mind as major health issues related to sodium intake. Most of us are aware that certain foods such as soup, potato chips, French fries and some cheeses are high in sodium.
Why then, was an FDA official holding up a loaf of bread when announcing sodium as a serious problem in the American diet? Being the largest slice in the USDA’s MyPyramid dietary guidelines, in the case of sodium consumption, makes bread the target for FDA.
While bread’s sodium per serving may not equal some of the heavy hitters like soup, the recommended six to 11 servings per day of grains puts the total sodium from bread, buns and rolls in the spotlight.
So how should grain-based food manufacturers answer the plea from FDA? First of all, do not wait for FDA to mandate sodium consumption through legislation. This is never a good solution to a problem.
One answer is to explore how to gradually reduce the sodium content in your yeast-raised baked products. Start now if you have not already done so. How do you formulate for sodium reduction? The answer will lie in why you are using salt in the first place.
FLAVOR + FUNCTIONALITY = SALT LEVEL. How much is needed for each part of the equation? It is likely that you don’t have any idea! Development of new or improved products starts and ends with flavor. Plain and simple, if the product does not taste good, you will never get the second sale. So start by reducing the salt in the formula by 10, 15, 20 and 25% of the total salt percentage. Then ask your colleagues in your department to be part of a triangle taste panel. (A triangle taste panel consists of two samples that are the same and one that is different.) If the majority of the participants can pick the odd sample, at a given level of reduction, then that level of sodium reduction has affected the flavor of your product.
Next, look at the functionality portion of the equation. Simply stated, salt tightens the gluten structure during the mixing process and enhances the crumb grain and texture of the finished product — All things we bakers tend to take for granted.
When working with salt substitutes/replacers, do not go for the "all or nothing" approach. If all of the salt in a formulation has been replaced, the resulting dough will likely be slack and sticky. Operations will be very unhappy when the sodium-reduced formula causes problems on the equipment lines. Like in the taste test, start with a percentage of the total salt and determine when you begin to lose the elasticity of the dough structure. Don’t go too far with salt reduction: You will likely solve one problem only to create a bigger one — never a good solution.
And what is a baker to do about chemically leavened products, which contain more sources of sodium than a loaf of bread? The leavening acids in baking powder and sodium bicarbonate are other issues that will take time in product reformulation. Ingredient suppliers will have an opportunity to develop new technologies on their side of the equation. The sodium challenge can turn into opportunities for those companies with the ability to respond to the baking industry’s needs.
Start mapping out your game plan now for your company’s salt-reduction project. Don’t get behind the curve on the sodium issue. The AMA/FDA war on sodium is not likely to go away.