It was March 17, 2005, in Atlanta, at the International Dairy Foods Association’s SmartMarketing meeting, that a trend tracker from the former Information Resources Inc. (now SymphonyIRI) market research firm proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, you heard it here first. Sodium will be one of the next consumer hot buttons.

“We’ve gone through counting fat and carbohydrate grams in pursuit of healthier lifestyles and better overall wellness. With that comes a return to keeping sodium intake levels low, as sodium intake is correlated to hypertension and heart health.”

The trend tracker was right. Sodium reduction has become a priority for all food and beverage manufacturers. Unfortunately for the dairy industry, milk is an inherent source of sodium, with an 8-oz glass containing about 120 to 135 mg.

But milk is not under scrutiny by health and nutrition authorities, as a glass or two a day is recognized as providing many essential nutrients. Sodium is one of them.

Compared to other minerals, the human body needs sodium in relatively large amounts, but many believe not as much as currently consumed. Federal guidelines state the average American should consume about 2,300 mg of sodium daily, while some population segments should consume closer to 1,500 mg. Research shows most Americans consume more than 4,000 mg each day.

Milk may be off the hook as a major contributor, but natural and processed cheeses are under pressure. Not only are they concentrated sources of milk, suggesting they start with a significant baseline of sodium, they also require sodium chloride for manufacturing, and in some instances, even safety. And though one may argue the 175 mg of sodium in an ounce of low-moisture part-skim mozzarella cheese is a mere 7.5% of the recommended daily value, the fact is, when eating a product such as pizza, more than one serving of cheese is typically consumed. It adds up.

Other dairy products, such as dips and sauces, typically run on the high side in terms of sodium levels, too. For example, a one-fourth cup serving of Philadelphia Cooking Crème-Italian Cheese & Herb variety contains 470 mg of sodium, which is 20% of the daily value.

Salt’s role in cheese

Dairy processors know reducing sodium is not just about taste, but also function. When it comes to natural cheese, salt is a pivotal ingredient in the production process. In actuality, it is the magic ingredient that stops the process, as salt is added after the desired pH is reached. This helps control fermentation and proteolysis by regulating starter cultures and enzymes. Salt also lowers the water activity of cheese, which prevents the growth of undesirable microorganisms. Without added salt, natural cheese would be bitter and bland, with an unacceptable soft body and short shelf life due to undesirable microbial growth and enzymatic activity.

Salt’s role in the preservation of cheese historically has been communicated in terms of a salt-to-moisture ratio, with, for example, in cheddar, a ratio of 4:6 recommended for optimum flavor development and maximum control of undesirable microbial growth. Thus, eliminating sodium chloride from cheese manufacturing is not an option.

Finding a suitable substitute for salt has been difficult because of its unique, clean, salty taste and flavor-enhancing properties. However, when it comes to function, sodium and potassium work similarly in managing moisture to reduce microbial growth and control the onset of pathogens. Thus, replacing some sodium chloride with potassium chloride long has been a common approach to reducing sodium content. Unfortunately, potassium chloride’s saltiness is tasted more slowly, and also often with a slight bitterness.

To compensate, the sodium replacement system usually will include one or more taste modifiers. The ingredients range from flavorants and spices, which attempt to mask the bitterness, while sometimes adding flavors that distract from the reduced saltiness. Other suppliers have managed to identify various technologies to overcome or mask potassium’s bitterness with the use of other ingredients.

Interestingly, the use of potassium chloride to reduce sodium may actually help address another micronutrient issue. This is because the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 identifies potassium as one of four nutrients of concern in the American diet, as current intakes are low enough to be a public health issue.

At some point in the future, use of potassium chloride salt substitutes actually may allow for use of an F.D.A.-approved health claim that reads “Diets containing foods that are a good source of potassium and that are low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.” In order to make such a claim, other composition criteria must be met, most notably fat content. But even without the claim on cheese or other dairy products, potassium’s healthy halo may transfer over and add value.

Emerging ingredient options

A recent innovation in salt-reduction ingredients comes from Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill.

“Using a patent-pending, spray-drying technology, we are able to turn standard salt crystals into free-flowing, hollow salt microspheres,” said Andrew Hoffman, director of wellness product development. “This delivers the salty taste consumers love, while allowing for a reduction in salt consumption in a growing number of foods.

“This ingredient tastes, labels and functions like salt because it is salt. We have been able to reduce salt levels by 25% to 50% in baked goods and salty snacks and have seen success in spreads, sauces and some dairy applications, such as cheese. The ingredient works best in low-moisture systems or when a fat or oil phase is used as the delivery vehicle, as it is necessary that these smaller, lower-density crystals are intact when they reach the tongue. As hollow microspheres, they efficiently deliver salty taste by maximizing surface area relative to volume.”

The ingredient — SODA-LO Salt Microspheres — was recognized as the “Heart health and circulatory innovation of the year” and overall “Most innovative health ingredient of the Year” from the NuW Excellence Awards at the Health Ingredients Europe expo, held in Frankfurt, Germany, earlier this month. The award recognizes individuals and business for their work and contribution to the industry.

Another ingredient that is making an impact with sodium reduction of cheese comes from Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, Minn.

“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 manufacturers demand,” said Dustin Grossbier, director of quality and technology. “Because our technology has significantly reduced the bitterness traditionally associated with potassium chloride, manufacturers do not need to use flavor systems or maskers, providing a cost-effective solution for sodium reduction in popular foods. In fact, with Nu-Tek Advanced Formula Potassium Chloride, we were able to produce a one-third-reduced sodium cheddar cheese that was indistinguishable from the full-sodium control.

“The basis of the technology is that it alters the crystal structure of potassium chloride to give it more surface area in order to enhance ‘salty’ intensity, but at the same time this alteration also reduces the metallic and bitter aspects of potassium chloride. It is labeled simply as potassium chloride on ingredient statements.”

In the area of processed cheese, dips and spreads, where salt’s role is primarily organoleptic, as other ingredients may be added to the formulations to control microbial growth, some suppliers have developed 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. Umami ingredients are able to trick the taste buds into thinking “salty.” The lingering taste that is experienced with umami foods or ingredients is often described as “deliciousness” and compensates for a reduction in sodium.

DairiConcepts L.P., Springfield, Mo., has developed an all-natural umami-type ingredient that is made from protein-rich whole milk using a proprietary fermentation process with select dairy cultures.

“The pale brown powdered ingredient no longer resembles milk,” said Marcia Rauwerdink, director of business development. “It possesses a brothy, meaty, savory flavor profile, rendering it ideal for a broad range of applications, including processed cheese, dairy dips and sauces, as well as salty snacks and soups. It may be declared on ingredient labels as simply: Cultured whole milk, nonfat dry milk.

“When used in combination with sodium chloride and potassium chloride, it is possible to achieve up to a 38% reduction in sodium in processed cheese, yielding a product that meets U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations for lower-sodium cheese in the National School Lunch Program,” Ms. Rauwerdink said.

The ingredients, and others to come, will make it possible for dairy processors to assist Americans with reducing their sodium intake. The industry is making progress in addressing this current consumer hot button.