Short-term sodium reduction goals of 30% or even 50% in baked foods may sound impressive, but shooting for gradual reductions — say 15% or even as little as 5% — may be more logical. With smaller reductions, consumers may fail to notice any sensory differences in the product.

Some food companies working with Cargill are taking a step-wise reduction in sodium and not promoting that reduction to consumers, said Janice Johnson, salt food applications technical service director for Cargill, Minneapolis.

“What we hear is, they are taking a stealth approach, gradually dropping 5% to 10% at a time,” she said.

A smaller level of sodium reduction achieved more sensory success in a recent study. The Oregon Health Authority collaborated with the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University in Portland, Ore., to determine the ability of consumers to detect the difference in sodium levels in four batches of 50% whole wheat sandwich bread. In the control bread, sodium chloride was 2% of flour at 14% moisture basis. The other three batches of bread had, respectively, a 10% sodium reduction when compared to the control batch, a 20% sodium reduction and a 30% sodium reduction. Consumers in Portland detected differences in sodium in the bread batches with 20% and 30% sodium reduction of control but not the batch with 10% sodium reduction.

In a second sensory test, consumers in Portland rated the four bread batches on overall acceptability, appearance, aroma, flavor, sweetness, salt level and texture. Consumers could tell a difference in the sodium levels of 50% whole wheat sandwich bread at a 20% and 30% reduction in salt, but they reported no difference in acceptability of any of the reduced sodium bread.

The 2011 National Nutrient Databank Conference in Bethesda, Md., gave credence to the strategy of gradual reduction. Three food companies at the event, which was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, described long-term plans for “silent” or “stealth” sodium reduction. All three companies discussed the need to give consumers time to adapt their taste buds to less salt in retail foods.

“Most of our customers are not describing the milligrams of sodium per serving that they are striving to achieve, but are stating that their goal is to reduce sodium by 10%, 20% or 30%,” said Bill McKeown, vice-president of product innovation at AB Mauri North America, Chesterfield, Mo. “There has been progress in sodium reduction over the past few years. Although it is difficult to judge the entire market, a goal of under 400 mg per 100 grams in bread products is the typical starting target. In tortillas, it is not uncommon to set targets at under 300 mg per 50 grams.”

In baked foods, removing sodium may affect more than just taste.

“Removing salt will impact mixing and processing significantly,” Mr. McKeown said. “As always, AB Mauri recommends taking smaller steps over time to achieve success. Reduction of salt may impact your mix time and result in a ‘sticky dough,’ which may be more difficult to process.”

Based on taste alone, tests suggest salt reductions to 1.5% to 1.7% (flour basis) will not impact flavor significantly, Mr. McKeown said. If a bakery is running 2%, a first step may be reducing the percentage to 1.9%.

“The bakery can then measure consumer response as well as address any process-related issues before moving to the next level of reduction,” he said. “When dropping below 1.5%, flavors such as yeast extracts or ferments are typically added to overcome loss of flavor. These additions come at higher price points, and care must be made to assure consumer acceptance.”

Dr. Johnson said formulators, when reducing sodium, should be aware of “the edge of the cliff.”

“At 10% or higher, things start dramatically changing,” she said of sodium reduction.

Reducing sodium levels may affect chemical leavening, especially reaction times. In response, ICL Performance Products, St. Louis, offers the Levona family of leavening acids that are designed to replace sodium in chemical leavening. Levona, which is a good source of calcium and contributes no sodium, is available in four grades: Allegro, Brio, Mezzo and Opus.

Innophos, Inc., Cranbury, N.J., offers Cal-Rise, which is designed to replace sodium acid pyrophosphate in chemical leavening. Cal-Rise also contains 18% calcium.

John Brodie, commercial development manager for bakery for Innophos, said sodium reduction of 15% to 25% in baked foods is attainable.

“Anything higher than 25% and it’s certainly more difficult and more expensive,” he said.

Mr. Brodie said he has noticed a recent uptick in sodium reduction activity and gave two possible reasons. One, companies may not want their products to have a higher sodium content than their competitors’ products in the same category, even if the category is snack cakes. Second, companies may be concerned about attaining goals in the national school meal programs.

A Federal Register notice on Jan. 26, 2012, dealt with the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and included a goal of reducing sodium content of meals gradually over a 10-year period. By July 1 of this year, schools are expected to have reduced the sodium content of school lunches by about 5% to 10% from the baseline. Further sodium reduction goals from baseline are 15% to 30% by July 1, 2017, and 25% to 50% by July 1, 2022.

Dr. Johnson said companies seeking guidance on sodium reduction may reference Health Canada and the National Salt Reduction Initiative. Ottawa-based Health Canada in June 2012 released guidance on reducing sodium in processed foods.