Every baker knows that baked foods are not particularly high in salt and sodium content, but because they make up so much of the daily diet, they contribute a good portion of the daily intake of sodium, 7.3% according to the NHANES 2005-06 survey. While sodium is essential to maintaining health, most Americans consume far more than they need. Hence, the ongoing campaign by medical experts to get us to cut our sodium intake.

Salt, a natural flavor improver, takes the blame, and baked foods — indeed, all processed foods — are natural targets for salt’s critics. Flavor enhancement may be salt’s primary function in many foods, but bakers need it for additional reasons. Salt plays an important role in yeast-raised foods as a fermentation brake, a gluten strengthener and an antimicrobial.

The good news? The industry has made progress. Since 1963, bread’s sodium content has come down 29% from an average of 254 mg per serving to 180 mg today. The bad news? These cuts are probably not enough.

“Sodium reduction is a challenge,” said Janice Johnson, PhD, salt food applications leader, Cargill, Wayzata, MN. “Baked goods are already at a relative low level of sodium, nearing the limit of what can be done by simply removing salt. But we need to test those limits.”

How low to go?

Here’s the truth: Go too low, and you will lose flavor. “One of the most difficult aspects of reducing sodium in a baked good is the flavor component,” explained Tom McCurry, executive vice-president, sales and marketing, Cain Food Industries, Dallas. “At low levels, 1.8 to 2.0%, salt delivers a significant boost to the flavor of all baked goods; however, when you drop below those levels, the flavor quality of the product begins to drop off.”

So, unlike other trends in health-and-wellness formulating, “going low” with sodium has been deliberately downplayed by marketers. Early efforts often sacrificed flavor along with the salt, and consumers have long taste memories. “Stealth mode is the attitude right now,” observed Alan Fisher, founder and president, Ocean’s Flavor Foods, Asheville, NC. “It’s because of the preconceived idea that the consumer will think there’s a taste difference in the product.”

Leslie Wilson, president, The Low Sodium Sea Salt Co., Inc., London, agreed. “If a bakery wants to introduce lower-sodium products, it must answer two challenges: first, the development of the product, and second, the successful launch in the market,” he said.

But there’s a silver lining to lower-sodium salts: In general, they confer a saltier taste. “That’s true of all low-sodium salts,” Mr. Fisher said. “That means you can use them at less than 1:1 replacement, with any limits going to taste.” Most customers using his company’s salts will chose to cut their salt percentages by half, with some ­going to one-quarter.

It started with potassium

The first non-sodium alternative bakers turned to was potassium chloride. It remains an important alternative.

“When we think about salt in food products, one of the first questions that should be asked is, ‘What is salt’s functional role here?’ ” Dr. Johnson said. “With bakery products, salty taste and flavor enhancement come top of mind, followed by control over gas production during fermentation in the case of yeast-leavened breads. For fermentation control, potassium chloride provides a good answer. It is the core of Cargill’s salt replacement portfolio, and it fulfills salt’s functional roles.”

Linda Kragt, director, technical services, Morton Salt, Chicago, identified salty taste as the important functional role of both sodium and potassium chloride, followed by controlling yeast gassing and strengthening gluten. “Furthermore, potassium is a necessary nutrient present at suboptimal levels in most American diets, prompting nutrition authorities to recommend increasing consumption,” Ms. Kragt added. Potassium chloride contains 52.4% potassium.

Potassium chloride has a long history. “We have been conducting application research on sodium reduction for more than 40 years,” Ms. Kragt noted.

The company markets KaliSel potassium chloride for food use. “Some of our earliest research was conducted on white bread,” she said. “We found that the use of potassium chloride at up to 50% substitution had no significant differences in bread volume, bread scoring or staling rate when proper adjustments were made in proof time. As for snack toppings, our recent sensory research using a descriptive analysis panel confirms that finer salt grades or grades that have more surface area such Morton Star Flake Dendritic salt provide greater saltiness intensity than coarser grades.”

Creative solutions emerge

“Potassium chloride has a mixed taste profile and so should be used with regular salt to provide an optimal taste,” Ms. Kragt said. When using potassium chloride, she advised starting at 25% substitution. The company’s Morton Lite Salt Mixture is an equal-parts blend of sodium and potassium chlorides. “Higher levels of potassium chloride in bland products like bread may impart off-tastes, depending upon the formula,” she noted.

Although Nu-Tek Salt Advanced Formula Potassium Chloride is made of potassium chloride, it has a unique single-crystal structure. “This minimizes the bitterness often associated with potassium chloride, while the expanded surface area creates a greater salt-like intensity than the typical potassium chloride particle,” explained Don Mower, president and COO, Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, MN. It has the ability to cut sodium levels by up to 50% without the need for flavor maskers.

“Specifically in dough systems, potassium chloride has the closest dough rheological characteristics to sodium chloride,” Mr. Mower added. “Although the exact mechanisms of gluten strengthening and dough extensibility are not agreed upon, on a molecular level, potassium chloride very closely resembles sodium chloride and, hence, expresses similar function.”

Cain Food Industries, Mr. McCurry explained, is the exclusive sales partner for Nu-Tek Food Science. Cain’s team of baking experts tested it extensively. It delivered the desired flavor and function, replacing salt on a 1:1 basis up to 50%, he reported.

Development of salt alternatives also advanced by combining potassium chloride with other ingredients, including sodium chloride. Dr. Johnson described how Cargill overcame some taste concerns by blending it with sodium chloride and compressing the blend, yielding the company’s reduced-sodium Flake Select. “It is flatter, with more surface area,” said Jackie Van Norden, product line manager, Cargill. “It dissolves quickly for salt flavor enhancement and can be used topically, too.”

A recently introduced salt alternative, Saltwell offered by Salinity Group, AB, Halmstad, Sweden, takes a single-grain approach. “Saltwell is a natural composition of sodium chloride and potassium chloride,” reported Thomas Hultman, Saltwell export manager. “It is not a mixed product. It is harvested with the minerals attached to each other in one grain.”

Because the two compounds are present in one grain, they won’t separate during handling. “Each grain has both types of crystals,” explained Ann Winzell, Saltwell product specialist. “Mixed products easily acquire an uneven distribution in bags.”

Developers of Smart Salt took a different slant. This replacer is composed of salt enriched with magnesium and potassium, using patented technology from Finland, according to Deborah A. Rolf, executive vice-president and president, Americas, Smart Salt, Inc., Arnold, CA. “Our technology is capable of varying the ratio of magnesium and potassium,” she said. “[This] controls flavor, functionality, texture and antimicrobial activity. The result is not a blend but a stable formed co-crystal of the mineral salts, primarily magnesium chloride.”

The co-crystallization process enables sodium reduction of 20 to 60% and yields more stable products with predictable behavior. “Salt replacers based solely on potassium chloride, magnesium chloride or magnesium sulfate can taste bitter or metallic in high concentrations,” Ms. Rolf said. “The Smart Salt sodium reduction system offers a balanced mineral profile. It provides a very salt-like flavor profile with no additional bitter or metallic off-notes at the same use levels as regular salt.”

Salts of the sea

Man’s first source of salt was evaporated sea water, and because sea salt is naturally higher in minerals, it offers a lower-sodium alternative, one that consumers perceive as a healthy ingredient. Shoppers welcome the mere mention of sea salt in the ingredient list.

Introduced 12 years ago, Ocean’s Flavor Lower Sodium Sea Salt is described by Mr. Fisher as, “the godfather of today’s low-sodium salt.” The company patented the process that yields a natural low-sodium sea salt ranging in sodium content from 30 to 68% less than regular salt. It consists of sodium chloride with high ­levels of potassium, magnesium and other minerals.

Ocean’s Flavor harvests its lower-sodium salt from an ancient lagoon in Mexico that once supplied the Aztecs. “It is unlike any other sea-water lagoon,” Mr. Fisher observed, noting that 133 different minerals have been identified in its brine. Ocean water, he said, carries 85 minerals. All water used in processing this sea salt comes from the lagoon, including washing the crystals.

SOLO, a sodium-reduced, magnesium-enriched sea salt also containsing potassium, was introduced in Europe 15 years ago by The Low Sodium Sea Salt Co. The company licensed US production of SOLO to Nexcel Natural Ingredients, Springfield, IL. It can achieve a 60% cut in sodium compared with regular salt.

The push to slash sodium intake has been particularly strong in the UK, where the public health target is 2,400 mg per day of sodium and no more. Mr. Wilson recalled, “I developed SOLO to help drive down sodium in the full spectrum of food products. Health experts say it provides potassium and magnesium in the perfect proportion.”

Such compounds add consumer appeal. “The main advantage is its natural mineral content, and it is physically the same as common salt,” observed Alan English, technical manager, The Low Sodium Sea Salt Co.

Newer to the market is Salona Low Sodium Sea Salt, from ICL Food Specialties. It is harvested from the Dead Sea in Israel and contains only 1.7 g sodium per 100 g, compared with salt’s 38 g. “Not all sea salts are equivalent since they generally reflect the water composition from the sea in which they are derived,” said Barbara Bufe Heidolph, principal, applications research and technical support, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis.

Salona is a natural mineral that contains potassium and magnesium. “When used in combination with sodium chloride, it provides a balance of cations that delivers a better flavor profile than single chloride substitutes,” Ms. Heidolph explained.

Saltwell, a new lower-sodium salt alternative described earlier, is another sea salt, although it comes from the Atacama Desert, west of the Andes Mountains in northern Chile. It is extracted as brine from a ­mineral-rich pool of water 30 m below the desert’s crust. The high-altitude desert is considered the most sterile environment on Earth. “We don’t do anything to the product except dry it,” Mr. Hultman noted.

This sea salt is a natural combination of sodium and potassium chlorides and 35% reduced in sodium from conventional salt. It is not a blend, Mr. Hultman noted, but a one-grain product.

Closer to home, Morton Salt’s California Pure sea salt is harvested from the waters of San Francisco Bay.

Shape-shifting salt

Yes, sodium chloride can replace sodium chloride and still achieve the food manufacturer’s targeted sodium content, but it takes special shapes to do the job. The trick is to make less do more.

Consider the hollow pyramid configuration of Cargill’s Alberger salt. “In topical applications, you can do a lot with the physical aspects of particle size and crystal morphology, which can help create a burst of salty taste,” Dr. Johnson said. “It boils down to surface area: the greater the area, the faster the rate of dissolution and the greater the salty taste impression. Our Alberger coarse topping flake salt with its hollow pyramid shape is a good example.”

Another is SODA-LO Salt Microspheres, a new form of sodium chloride introduced to the US by Tate & Lyle. Proprietary technology turns standard salt crystals into free-flowing, hollow spheres. “The smaller crystals optimize saltiness perception in foods by maximizing surface area relative to volume, so SODA-LO makes it possible to enjoy clean salt flavor while consuming lower levels of sodium,” the company stated.

It tastes, labels and functions like salt because it is salt, and it reduces sodium in food applications by up to 50%.

Salt and sodium may not be top of mind for consumers, but they should be for bakery and snack formulators. It’s time to get smart about salt.