KANSAS CITY — Most people in the United States consume too much sodium, with the majority coming from processed, packaged and prepared foods, and the foods served through the public school system. It means school meals are an important part of efforts to reduce daily sodium intake and improve public health.

Meat and poultry processors are working on reducing the amount of sodium in proteins served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The challenge is to keep them tasty, safe and affordable so that the 13 million US children who live in food insecure households in the United States, according to the US Department of Agriculture, will eat the products served to them during school.

The US Food and Drug Administration has provided food manufacturers with guidance for sodium reduction. While the guidance is voluntary, taking action is considered necessary by some companies. Currently, on average, Americans 14 years and older consume 50% more than the recommended limit for sodium. When it comes to children aged 2 to 13 years, more than 95% exceed the recommended limits of sodium for their age groups. It is a trend that could have an impact on health outcomes later.

“School nutrition professionals are focused on reducing sodium in school breakfast and lunch programs to comply with the new USDA weekly sodium limits governing school meals, which are aligned with the FDA voluntary sodium targets,” said Amr Shaheed, technical service manager-food applications, Innophos, Cranbury, NJ. “To allow nutrition professionals time to implement the changes, the rule proposes a multi-year approach to reducing weekly sodium targets starting in 2025. Given this timeline, new product formulation needs to start now.”

Ingredient suppliers are ready to help with different ingredient technologies to reduce a little bit here and a little bit there, or making functional substitutions, while maintaining product quality and safety. The efforts are a significant step in creating a healthier food supply to help reverse the trend of diet-related chronic diseases, according to the FDA. That’s because too much sodium increases the risk for developing hypertension, thereby raising the risk for heart attacks and strokes. 

Potassium salt to the rescue

In many meat and poultry applications, only a certain amount of sodium chloride may be removed before the product is negatively impacted. That’s why formulators need to explore all ingredients that contribute sodium and make reductions and swaps where possible. One of the most common swaps is replacing sodium chloride with potassium chloride.

Since Dec. 17, 2020, the term potassium salt may be used on ingredient statements rather than potassium chloride. It is considered a more consumer-friendly term.

“Sodium reduction can be a challenge in meat and poultry products, as salt plays a number of functional roles in these applications, influencing everything from flavor and yield to microbial control,” said Joseph Purl, food scientist and culinary chef, Cargill, Minneapolis. “We’ve found potassium salt can serve as a one-to-one replacement for sodium chloride since it offers similar functionality to salt. With potassium salt, manufacturers can count on maintaining the same great taste, texture and shelf life of their foods, all while reducing the sodium content up to 50%.

“Deeper salt reductions are possible in more seasoned products like meat sticks, while blander applications, like deli poultry meat, might only allow for a 30% salt reduction. Ultimately, finding the right balance will depend on the application.”

Ingredient suppliers have learned numerous formulation techniques to trick the taste buds into tasting more sodium than is present in the final product. It’s all about the way the tongue perceives salty.

“In chicken nuggets, we’ve found we can use up to 100% potassium salt inside the nugget, if we use real salt in the breading,” Purl explained. “The topical salt in the breading delivers the flavor experience consumers expect and masks the off notes from the potassium salt in the chicken. This approach enables brands to cut salt by as much as 50%, without impacting consumer likeability or processing yields.”

Prepared foods, such as breakfast sandwiches, pasta sauces and even sloppy joe meat, may be distributed to school meal programs in refrigerated or frozen formats. With these products, it is important to consider all the sources of sodium.

“In a chicken patty with gravy, there’s salt in both the gravy and the chicken patty,” Purl said. “To lower the sodium, we encourage brands to explore sodium reduction in both components, using potassium salt in the chicken patty, and opting for our unique crystallized salt in the gravy. Its crystalline structure has been used to reduce sodium by 15% in gravy sauces as part of a prepared meal, which may help mask the potassium salt in the patty. Equally important for food manufacturers, using potassium salt in the chicken patty delivers the same cook yields as traditional salt.”

NuTek Natural Ingredients, Omaha, Neb., offers several potassium-salt based solutions to reduce the sodium content of the batters, breadings, marinades and seasonings used in many of the meat and poultry foods that school-aged children enjoy. The greatest challenge with swapping potassium salt with table salt is its bitter flavor.

“Our clean label salt solutions are produced using a proprietary washing and drying process to eliminate potassium’s bitterness, without the use of bitter blockers, flavor modulators or synthetic additives,” said Steve Zimmerman, senior director technical sales at NuTek Natural Ingredients. “These cost-effective solutions deliver a healthier nutrition balance, while delivering the same great taste and functionality as regular salt.”

Phosphates are used in many meat and poultry products to keep them from drying out, as phosphates increase the water-binding capacity of proteins by raising their pH. Higher pH opens fibrous proteins, allowing moisture migration, which the proteins grab onto. The binding of water increases yields. The proteins also are better able to retain marinade and cook juices, thereby reducing purge and assuring that meat is succulent once cooked.

“Recently we’ve worked with meat manufacturers looking to take steps to update their formulas with alternatives to traditional sodium to help meet current guidelines,” Shaheed said. “Our blend of potassium and sodium phosphate helps to provide greater yield and binding in meat and poultry products while offering up to 93% less sodium than typical sodium phosphates. This helps manufacturers reduce sodium levels significantly for products like deli meats and chicken nuggets, staying in line with increased government regulatory scrutiny while providing healthier lunch options to school children.”

Potassium versions of sodium-based ingredients are typically used in the same manner. What changes are the ingredient declaration statements and the sodium and potassium content on the Nutrition Facts panel. The latter is viewed favorably, as many consumers strive to reduce sodium intake while at the same time, increase potassium intake, as sufficient potassium intake is lacking in many diets.

“These dry ingredients simply replace the desired portion of the salt in the formula, either directly in the meat block or in the brine,” Zimmerman said. “For those companies that utilize pre-blended seasonings and coatings, their suppliers incorporate our solutions into their formulations to reduce the sodium content.”

Additional options

A range of other food ingredients may assist with sodium reduction. Some are specific to application, while others may be used in all types of products. Yeast extracts, for example, are recognized for their ability to provide umami flavor. Some yeast-based taste enhancers provide an additional dimension of flavor through the contribution of roasted flavor notes.

Yeast extracts are used in a similar way as sodium chloride and are declared on ingredient decks simply as yeast extract. They don’t produce any of the bitterness or chemical notes that can sometimes be a byproduct of the sodium reduction process.

“NuTek also produces plant-based, natural flavor solutions created through age-old fermentation and cooking techniques,” Zimmerman said. “Our natural flavor solutions deliver umami taste and help to increase salty flavor perception with 85% less sodium than standard salt.”

Permeate, a co-product of the manufacture of high-protein dairy ingredients, contains a unique concentration of minerals with flavor-potentiating properties. Three varieties are available — whey permeate, milk permeate and delactosed permeate — each possessing different beneficial functions.

Permeate is most widely utilized in the dried form, which requires no special handling from distribution through storage. The dried powder flows readily and is easy to mix in with the other ingredients in the formulation.

As mentioned, sodium phosphates help with the water-holding capacity of proteins, which prevents them from drying out. It is particularly important in foodservice products, which may be kept warm for extensive periods of time or even reheated.

“Functional proteins can also offer processors the ability to reduce salt levels in their products without suffering yield or quality characteristics,” said Michael Cropp, technical services manager, Kemin, Des Moines, Iowa. “The functional proteins undergo a patented process that allows them to increase water-holding capacity, removing the need for salt to perform this function.”

Many antimicrobials used in meat and poultry applications are buffered closer to meat pH levels (above the isoelectric point) to improve processing attributes while still ensuring microbial safety. This buffering process often includes sodium as a carrier.

“This impacts the total amount of sodium in a product,” Cropp said. “Utilizing potassium-based salts in place of sodium salts in various antimicrobials allows processors to ensure food safety is achieved as well as quality standards and nutritional guardrails.”

Deli meats rely on buffered vinegar, also sometimes called dry vinegar, as a clean label alternative to traditional preservatives for inhibiting mold growth and maintaining freshness. Acetic acid is the key active ingredient in buffered vinegar. It is available bound to either sodium or potassium. Interestingly, these vinegar ingredients are declared on labels as simply dry vinegar or buffered vinegar.

“Sodium or potassium may be used, but the label declaration wouldn’t necessarily be impacted,” Cropp said.