The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with several partners, approximately 18 months ago launched a Million Hearts, an initiative to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes in five years. Reducing dietary sodium intake is a component of the initiative, because excess sodium has been identified as a contributory factor in the development of hypertension, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Food formulators are making an effort to reduce the sodium content of processed foods, since according to the Food and Drug Administration, an estimated 77% of Americans’ sodium intake comes from packaged and restaurant food. Only 12% is naturally occurring in foods while 11% is added by the consumer during cooking or at the table.

Dairy products, cheese, dips and spreads have been identified as foods with potentially high sodium contents, but dairy processors have a growing number of innovative ingredient systems to assist the H.H.S. in achieving its goal.

The words “salt” and “sodium” do not mean the same thing, but they are often used interchangeably. Salt, which is chemically known as sodium chloride, is a crystal-like compound that is abundant in nature and used to flavor and preserve food. Sodium is one of the two chemical elements in salt.

In addition to impacting the flavor of food, depending on the application, salt may play a role in processing and preservation. When flavor is the primary function, formulators may often remove some salt while adding other flavor-enhancing ingredients and flavoring ingredients. Sodium reduction is not always as easy when salt impacts product functionality. Regardless, many product developers are making ingredient adjustments without flagging the total sodium reduction to consumers in order to prevent any preconceived notions that the food may taste inferior.

Marketers hope label-reading consumers will be attracted to products that have heart-healthy sodium levels on the Nutrition Facts Panel. Many medical authorities, including the Mayo Clinic, recommend avoiding foods with more than 200 mg of sodium per serving. In dairy, processed cheeses, dips and spreads historically have exceeded this level. And while natural cheeses tend to be lower in sodium content, often times more than a single serving (one oz) is consumed at a time, and thus, sodium intake remains high.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans currently recommend daily sodium intakes for the general population to not exceed 2,300 mg while the American Heart Association recommends 1,500 mg.

Options for processors

More so with cheese — natural and processed — than dips and spreads, salt plays a role in functionality, making reduction a challenge. However, suppliers have been active in creating sodium reduction systems that still produce quality cheeses.

“Salt plays an important functional role in cheese, influencing three primary characteristics: flavor, texture and shelf life,” said Timothy Wallace, marketing manager of dairy enzymes for Chr. Hansen A/S, Hoersholm, Denmark. “Salt reduction in cheese has a negative influence on all three characteristics, resulting in a bland product with increased bitterness and a mealy, chalky texture. The greater the sodium reduction, the more pronounced the defects.

“We have developed a concept that uses a combination of cultures and enzymes to allow for sodium reduction in cheese. The specific adjunct cultures enhance the flavor of the cheese, replacing the flavor that is lost when salt is reduced. The specific coagulating enzyme reduces bitterness and contributes to a firmer texture as a result of the enzyme’s increased specificity compared to other coagulants used in cheese production.”

The technology applies to natural cheese only, but because natural cheese is used in processed cheese, as well as many dips and spreads, the sodium reduction may transfer to the formulations.

Use of the enzyme system does not impact the ingredient statement, as cultures and coagulants are standard in cheese-making.

“But because salt influences cheese characteristics other than the three primary ones, it is necessary to change certain production processes when this system is used,” Mr. Wallace said. “The extent of these changes depends on the level of sodium reduction but does not require any equipment changes.

“If you are targeting a 10% reduction, these changes are quite minor, but at higher levels, such as 50%, there are several process adjustments that must be made. The good news is that we have been able to successfully produce cheese with a 50% reduction in sodium. However, we recommend targeting a 25% sodium reduction as this allows for attractive labeling claims and the product is very similar to the regular-salt cheese.”

Another approach to reducing the sodium content of dairy products such as cheese, sauces, dips and spreads is through the addition of whey permeate. The ingredient has been researched extensively by the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Permeate, a byproduct of milk or the whey membrane filtration process, contains lactose, protein and ash, as well as milk minerals, such as sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium. The broad range of different minerals in permeate provides the taste of salt, allowing for a reduction in salt in some applications.

Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, Minn., is taking a different approach to sodium reduction, one that reduces the sodium content of salt crystals through the inclusion of potassium. But this is no ordinary potassium chloride ingredient.

“We use patented technology to produce a unique single-crystal potassium chloride ingredient that maintains the taste and functionality of salt, while providing the consistent results cheese makers require,” said Don Mower, president and chief operating officer. “This technology significantly reduces the bitterness traditionally associated with potassium chloride. Manufacturers do not need to use flavor systems or maskers to make great-tasting cheese products.

“The unique technology alters the crystal structure to produce a single-crystal that minimizes the metallic or bitter notes traditionally associated with potassium chloride as well as providing increased surface area in order to enhance ‘salty’ intensity.”

On ingredient statements, the Nu-Tek system may be labeled as potassium chloride.

“It stores and functions just like salt, with a similar shelf life and good cheese-aging characteristics, and similar to regular salt, facilitates whey removal and controls acid production,” Mr. Mower said. “It is a cost-effective ingredient system that reduces sodium content without any need for maskers or flavor enhancers.”

The potassium chloride ingredient may reduce sodium levels in cheese and other dairy applications up to 35% and may be used as a 1:1 replacement for traditional salt.

“In most applications, no special processing steps are required,” Mr. Mower said.

The company has been able to produce a one-third-reduced sodium cheddar cheese that is indistinguishable from the full-sodium control in consumer testing, according to Nu-Tek.

“We have also had success with mozzarella cheese, cheese sauces and cottage cheese,” Mr. Mower said.

Some dairy processors are exploring the use of sea salt, rather than traditional sodium chloride crystals, especially since sea salt is becoming more popular among consumers as information about the health benefits derived from its use are reported, said Gil Bakal, marketing director for A&B Ingredients, Fairfield, N.J. The company recently introduced a natural sea salt ingredient that combines salts from two seas: the mineral-rich Dead Sea and the Red Sea. The end result is a salt that provides 50% less sodium without affecting the taste profile of foods, according to the company.

Mr. Bakal said the combination of natural elements and the proprietary manufacturing process enables A&B to offer the new sea salt in a cost-effective manner. He added that “the natural properties of sea salt contain many essential trace minerals the body requires, and is a natural means of assisting the body build a stronger immune system that can assist in fighting autoimmune disorders.”

Adding umami to enhance flavor

Another approach to replacing sodium in dairy foods where salt’s role is primarily organoleptic is to add ingredients that contribute the basic taste of umami, which is recognized for its ability to amplify the perception of salt and at the same time to round out other flavors and taste sensations.

Yeast extract-based flavorings activate taste receptors, particularly umami, in the mouth and throat, and may help compensate for the taste losses that usually are associated with salt reduction, said Dennis Rijnders, business line manager for DSM Food Specialties, Delft, The Netherlands.

The company’s sodium reduction toolbox includes a selection of 100% natural yeast extracts and flavors. One ingredient is rich in natural free glutamate, and may strengthen bouillon notes and enhance the umami character in dips and spreads. Another ingredient contains neutral taste-enhancing nucleotides that provide a lingering salty taste in similar dairy products.

Sensient BioPharma and Savory Flavors, Indianapolis, offers a line of yeast extracts that may deliver up to a 50% sodium reduction without compromising the taste or functional integrity of the finished product, including cheese and other dairy products, as well as animal proteins and baked goods.

“This ingredient, which is declared on labels simply as yeast extract, can replace a portion of the existing sodium chloride,” said Sonal Sanghani, director of research and development. “Our recommended usage rate is 0.3% to 0.5% in the finished product. Of course, usage levels are based on the desired level of sodium reduction and some variations exist, depending on the application.”

Wixon, St. Francis, Wis., has created a variety of sodium-reduction systems based on flavor modifying technology.

“While the ingredient systems reduce sodium, they can also modify flavors, enhance savory notes and mask the bitter metallic off notes found in potassium and salt substitutes, without compromising functionality and
flavor,” said Jeanne Meeder, director of industrial and consumer products research and development. “The systems may contain salt, potassium chloride, natural flavors and an anti-caking ingredient such as silicon dioxide, depending on the application. In many applications, the proprietary blends are a direct replacement for salt, and up to a 50% reduction in sodium is possible.”

While sodium and salt reduction in processed food products has been identified as a priority by industry stakeholders, it is recognized that the process is not easy. At a meeting in early April to discuss the state of sodium reduction, Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said, “Although progress is being made, reducing sodium in products without affecting the taste or consumer acceptance of products is no easy task. Consumer acceptance of sodium-reduced food products is an important factor that must always be taken into consideration.”

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who also participated in the meeting added, “Neither public health officials nor many food industry executives are satisfied with the sodium status quo. It is encouraging that some of the major manufacturers and restaurants are taking the problem seriously, sponsoring research, and actually lowering sodium levels in their products.”