KANSAS CITY — Most people in the US consume too much sodium, with the majority coming from processed, packaged and prepared foods. This includes dairy products, with cheese, cheese ingredients, and dips and spreads being the largest contributors. 

Formulators should explore all ingredients that contribute sodium, and make cuts and swaps where possible.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Washington, has provided food manufacturers with guidance for sodium reduction. While the guidance is voluntary, taking action is the right thing to do, especially if one is a supplier for foods intended for school meals. 

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released a final rule to update meal patterns for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program to align school meal nutrition standards with the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. This rulemaking is effective July 1, 2024; however, program operators are not required to make any changes to their menus as a result of this rulemaking until school year 2025-26, at the earliest.

The updated standards provide schools with time to gradually reduce sodium in school meals by instituting one achievable sodium reduction. These limits apply to the average amount of sodium in lunch and breakfast menus offered during a school week. For the next three school years, schools will maintain current sodium limits. Beginning July 1, 2027, schools will implement an approximate 15% reduction for lunch and 10% reduction for breakfast from current sodium limits.

“The FDA has followed a methodical, iterative process that has encouraged a gradual approach to sodium reduction, with realistic targets, established timelines and ongoing monitoring,” said Jordan Timm, research and development lead, salt, for Cargill, Minneapolis. “Regulators put a lot of thought into this approach, recognizing that salt is highly functional in many applications, contributing to taste, texture, food safety and more. Throughout the process, their goal has been to give the right guidance and set realistic targets so that the industry can be successful.

Why it matters

Most Americans 14 years and older consume 50% more than the recommended limit for sodium, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. When it comes to children aged 2 to 13 years, more than 95% exceed the recommended limits of sodium for their age groups. This could have profound impacts on later health outcomes.

“Public awareness and education about the health risks of excessive sodium have been addressed by physicians and health advocates for decades,” said Matt Buss, director of research and development, Allied Blending, Keokuk, Iowa. “We have created low-sodium and sodium-free versions of hundreds, if not thousands, of products. This can include replacements for sodium in preservatives, leavening agents and other functional ingredients.”

FDA’s voluntary guidance for sodium reduction is one of many efforts to improve dietary patterns in the US, according to Robin McKinnon, senior advisor for nutrition policy for FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Allied Technology Food Scientists Matt Buss and Leslie BoonePhoto: Allied Blending

“[It’s about] reducing the burden of diet-related chronic diseases and advancing health equity,” McKinnon said. “Excess sodium intake is associated with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, the leading causes of death in the US.”

Most sodium intake does not come from shaking on salt by the consumer. More than 70% comes from outside the home, she said.

“It is extremely difficult to meet recommended sodium intakes with the current food supply,” McKinnon said. “There’s much variability in sodium across similar foods in the food supply.”

Other countries have implemented sodium reductions in the food supply successfully. It can be done in the US, but FDA believes it will need to occur over time.

“This creates a level playing field,” McKinnon said. “Consumers’ palates will adjust as long as adjustments are broad and gradual.”

Many marketers think it is best to not flag sodium reduction on product labels, as it is suggestive of less flavor and an inferior product. Simply make the reduction — carefully — and let label-reading consumers be pleasantly surprised when they view the reasonable sodium content of their favorite dairy products. Suppliers are ready to help through the use of varied ingredient technologies.

“The uncertainty of how the US consumer will react to sodium-reduced products may be influencing companies to be very calculated and perform their due diligence to strategize the best approach in reducing sodium,” said Christine Shiinoki, technical applications manager, CJ Food & Nutrition Tech, Downers Grove, Ill. “Consumers say they want one thing, such as reduced-sodium food products, but may not like the resulting flavor. No company wants to disappoint their customer.”

With many varied sodium-reduction solutions on the market, there is no one product-fits-all ingredient. In many instances, reduction requires a systems approach.

Sodium Nutrition PanelPhoto: ©MARK POPROCKI – STOCK.ADOBE.COM

Salt substitutes

One of the most common swaps is replacing sodium chloride with potassium chloride. Since December 2020, the term potassium salt may be used on ingredient statements rather than potassium chloride. This is considered a more consumer-friendly term, according to McKinnon.

“Potassium salt helps with reducing sodium,” McKinnon said. “Consumers understand it’s a salt, one that is substituting for sodium salt.”

Another FDA initiative to assist with sodium reduction is in the works. The agency proposed to amend standards of identity (SOI) that specify sodium chloride as a required or optional ingredient and to permit the use of salt substitutes in these standardized foods. This impacts many standardized cheeses. There are four types of revisions to the applicable SOI in FDA’s proposed rule.

When the current text of the SOI lists “salt” as an optional ingredient, the proposed rule would amend the SOI to state, “salt or salt substitute.” When the current text of the SOI provides for the use of “salt” in a paragraph, the proposed rule would amend the SOI to state, “salt or salt substitute.” When the current text of the SOI uses terms such as “salted,” “salted with dry salt or brine” or “salting,” to provide for use of salt in the food, but does not specify salt as an ingredient, the proposed rule would amend the optional ingredient list to add “salt substitute.” And lastly, when the current text of the SOI uses terms such as “salted” or “salted in brine” to provide for the use of salt in the food, but does not provide a list of optional ingredients, the proposed rule would amend the SOI to add a paragraph to state: “During the cheesemaking process, where the curd is salted, salt substitute may be used.”

Toolbox of ingredients

There are many sodium salt replacements available to formulators. While potassium chloride tends to be a favorite in the dairy industry, it is smart to look at all sources of sodium and possibly make little cuts here and there.

“Salt plays a very functional role in many dairy products.” Timm said. “In addition to saltiness and flavor enhancement, it also supports texture and body in cheese and butter, and is important for microbial management, food safety and shelf life.”

In addition to Cargill offering potassium chloride/potassium salt, the company also has a uniquely shaped sodium chloride salt crystal. The shape influences salty perception, with a little having a great impact.

“It’s important to consider how the consumer’s taste receptors will interact with the food item,” said Elizabeth Kreger, innovation and analytical manager-research and development, Sensient Flavors & Extracts, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “For example, let’s look at sodium in bread compared to sodium in a salted caramel candy and how those molecules get to your taste buds. With bread, we chew and turn the dough into a ball before swallowing. Perhaps only 10% of the sodium in the food will reach our taste buds. On the contrary, as a caramel candy melts into a sauce in your mouth, there is a lot of interaction with taste buds, so it is easier to detect the salt flavor. Knowing how we expect a product to act in a certain way helps us understand what type of taste modifier or modulator might work best to provide the same flavor sensation overall.”

Sensient has several offerings for sodium reduction. They are characterized as flavor enhancers.

“Our proprietary taste technology mimics a full sodium taste perception in a reduced-sodium application,” said Wara Pirzada, senior application scientist at Sensient Flavors & Extracts. “One of the key aspects of all our sodium reduction solutions is the ability to label as a natural flavor. We can also tailor each solution to meet the individual needs of a specific product formulation; it’s not one-size-fits-all.”

Sensient’s sodium flavor enhancer technology is not a 1:1 replacer for sodium. The company recommends using between 0.3% to 0.5% to replace up to 40% sodium in the formula.

“Consumers have certain expectations for how dairy should not only taste, but also feel,” Pirzada said. “More often than not, when we try to reduce sodium in products, certain off notes may begin to pop. These may include sourness, bitterness and so on. Therefore, sodium reduction can be especially effective when we combine our flavor enhancement solution with masking and mouthfeel technologies. Our line of maskers can help cover up those off notes while adding a fatty mouthfeel enhancer can facilitate rounding out the profile, making dairy products even richer.”

NuTek Natural Ingredients, St. Louis Park, Minn., offers a variety of potassium-salt based solutions that have been designed to not taste bitter.

“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.”

The potassium versions of most sodium-based ingredients are typically used in the same manner. However, there will be changes to the ingredient declaration statement and the sodium and potassium content on the Nutrition Facts. 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.

“While sodium substitutes such as potassium chloride have been on the market for a considerable period, they bring their own set of risks, including heart palpitations and hyperkalemia,” said Sowmi Raju, food scientist at Allied Blending. “Simply swapping one ingredient for another in an effort to address health concerns can inadvertently introduce new, potentially more severe, problems. This approach may compromise public health, especially considering that not everyone diligently scrutinizes ingredient labels. Therefore, any substitution in food formulas aimed at reducing one health issue should be carefully evaluated to avoid unintended consequences that could harm consumers’ well-being. This is why progress is slow.”

Yeast extracts have become a label-friendly alternative to added salt in cheese spreads and dips. They 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.

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.

“Typically, sodium-based emulsifying salts, such as disodium phosphate and sodium polyphosphates, are used in processed cheese due to their multiple functionalities, such as improving texture, ability to slice, and melt characteristics,” said Amr Shaheed, technical services and application development manager, Innophos, Cranbury, NJ. Additionally, emulsifying salts are used for protein stabilization in ready-to-drink dairy drinks and yogurt.

“One effective approach is replacing traditional sodium-based phosphates with potassium-based counterparts,” Shaheed said. “Innophos’s potassium-based alternatives enable manufacturers to create lower-sodium dairy products without sacrificing texture, quality or taste, meeting both regulatory guidelines and consumer demand for healthier options.”