Researchers are working to limit the sodium in cheese but maintain its functionality.

The salted caramel flavor now found in almost every food category imaginable delineates the basic taste of salty, as salty is discernable when combined with the sweetness of browned sugar and milk. With salted caramel, salty is more than a basic taste or an amplifier of flavor. It is a flavor

The relationship cheese has with salt is more than flavor. It is complicated, as cheese needs salt for functionality. During the manufacture of natural cheese, salt is added to the curd once the desired pH is attained. 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 have an unacceptable soft body and very short shelf life due to undesirable microbial growth and enzymatic activity. It also would be bitter and bland.

Process cheese relies on natural cheese as its base ingredient. Process cheese is produced by blending natural cheese of different ages and degrees of maturity with emulsifying salts and other ingredients. This is followed by heating and continuous mixing to form a homogeneous product with an extended shelf life. The emulsifying salts are responsible for making process cheese flow when heated, rather than stretch, which is what you get with melted natural cheese.

When it comes to cheese, salt is just as important as the milk and cultures, but maybe not at the levels currently added. Reducing the salt content of cheese, even if just by 10%, may make it more appealing to the many consumers trying to reduce their sodium intake.

Consumers do not taste all of the salt that is in such foods as cheese and some meats, according to a study published in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Food Science. So why not reduce?

The study’s researchers explained that in such foods as chips, where salt is on the surface, or soup, where salt is dispersed, consumers taste all of the salt. This is not the case with salty solids, where salt is dissolved into the matrix of the food. When one eats salty solids, only a fraction of the salt gets released before swallowing suggesting that much of the salt does not impact taste.

Why reduce?

Too much sodium in the diet has been associated with high blood pressure in some consumer populations, one of the leading causes of heart disease and stroke. Hence the reason 53% of consumers participating in the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 10th anniversary Food and Health Survey published in early May indicated they are trying to limit sodium intake.

While cheese contributes just 8% of the sodium in the average American diet, cheese is also an ingredient in two of the ‘top six’ drivers of sodium: pizza and sandwiches.

“Sodium overconsumption is a global concern,” said Peter Kaye, chief marketing officer, NuTek Food Science, Omaha, Neb. “New initiatives to reduce sodium are being implemented in all regions of the world. This is driven by the desire to align with the recommended reductions in sodium consumption proposed by World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and others.

“Our customers in both the food service and retail channels are actively pursuing sodium reduction in cheese products. This work is driven by consumer demand for lower sodium, more nutritionally balanced and clean label products.”

The recommendations Mr. Kaye refers to include less than 2,000 mg of sodium per day by the W.H.O. In the United States, the current Dietary Guidelines are 2,300 mg daily. The figure likely will remain the same for the next five years, as the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (D.G.A.C.) report submitted earlier this year stated sodium continues to be overconsumed by the U.S. population. The committee, however, did not suggest lowering the recommended daily intake for the general population to be the same as that by the W.H.O.

It is important to remember that sodium is vital to human life, as the body needs relatively large amounts to properly function. Because intake for many often exceeds the daily goal, with research showing that many Americans consume more than 4,000 mg each day, the D.G.A.C. suggests consumers change their eating habits. In other words, they should seek foods that have appropriate sodium contents.

According to the D.G.A.C. report, sodium, along with other over-consumed nutrients, is not intended to be reduced in isolation, but should be a part of a healthy dietary pattern balanced in calories. Instead of focusing purely on reduction, emphasis should be placed on replacement and shifts in food intake and eating patterns.

“While cheese contributes just 8% of the sodium in the average American diet, cheese is also an ingredient in two of the ‘top six’ drivers of sodium: pizza and sandwiches,” said Mary Wilcox, vice-president of ingredient marketing, Midwest Dairy
Association, St. Paul, Minn. “After the 2010 Dietary Guidelines were released, our industry committed to being part of the sodium solution. The fact that sodium guidance is not expected to change with the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines means the public health challenge is still there and the dairy industry continues to actively pursue solutions to address this challenge.”

Vicki Brewer, principal scientist, Land O’Lakes Ingredients, Arden Hills, Minn., said, “The U.S. cheese industry has taken an unprecedented leadership role in the cheese and sodium challenge by working collaboratively on key industry-wide initiatives. There is a tremendous opportunity to educate and communicate the positive benefits of cheese as well as dispel myths and misperceptions. Cheese is simple, wholesome and diverse. It delivers nutrients many Americans don’t get enough of, and people love cheese.”

Driving reduction efforts

The food service and food manufacturing industries are the major drivers of lower-sodium cheeses. Many companies have started to reformulate foods containing cheese so the Nutrition Facts Panel states a more appealing sodium content per serving.

“Dietary recommendations encourage consumers to choose foods low in sodium,” said Lori Hoolihan, a registered dietitian and the manager of nutrition research at the Dairy Council of California, Sacramento, Calif. “The Nutrition Facts label lists the ‘% Daily Value’ for sodium. Foods listed as 5% or less for sodium are low in sodium. Anything above 20% for sodium is considered high.”

New school lunch guidelines, in particular, are driving sodium reduction initiatives. This is because as of July 1, 2014, the total sodium content of meals offered through the breakfast and lunch programs was significantly reduced, and this reduction will be even greater come 2022. For example, this past year, lunch served to high school students (grades 9 to 12) had to contain 1,080 mg or less of sodium, as averaged during the course of a week. For the 2022 to 2023 school year, that figure drops to 740 mg. Previously the weekly average was 1,588 mg.

“Most low-sodium cheese formulation requests are coming from companies that provide cheese products to school lunch programs,” said Jenny Zhou, senior food technologist, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis.

Most low-sodium cheese formulation requests are coming from companies that provide cheese products to school lunch programs.

Nicole Durch, senior technical service representative, Cargill, Hopkins, Minn., added, “The two largest cheese varieties consumed in the U.S. are mozzarella and cheddar. These cheeses are the focus of our reduced-sodium research based on feedback from our customers. For example, pizza is an end-use for mozzarella, and considering its use in school lunch programs, this is one channel that has a potential for commercial viability.”

In multi-component foods, formulators are choosing ingredients that have undergone some degree of sodium reduction so the finished product is low in sodium. Many marketers are not calling out the reduction on front labels in fear that consumers will think the food tastes inferior. Rather they simply reveal the stealth reduction in the Nutrition Facts.

Nestle USA, Glendale, Calif., recently pledged to improve the ingredient quality and nutritional profile of some of its most popular frozen pizza and snack brands without affecting taste. This includes a 10% reduction in sodium by the end of 2015.

Approaches to reduction

There are a number of formulation options for sodium reduction in cheese, according to research by the Midwest Dairy Association.

“First is to simply reduce the amount of sodium chloride,” Ms. Wilcox said. “Sensory results show consumers do not see any impact on flavor with up to 25% reduction.

“Secondly, a variety of commercially available salt substitutes can be used. These can be either potassium-based substitutes or whey protein substitutes.”

Finding a suitable substitute for sodium chloride historically has been difficult because of salt’s unique clean 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, which is why cheese makers often replace some sodium chloride with potassium chloride in order to reduce sodium content.

Nestle USA has pledged to reduce the sodium content of many of its frozen pizza and snack brands 10% by the end of 2015.

The drawback to traditional potassium chloride is its salty flavor is tasted slower than that of sodium chloride. It also has a bitter aftertaste. In recent years, suppliers have managed to identify various technologies to overcome or mask potassium’s bitterness with the use of other ingredients or processing technologies.

For example, technology may be used to alter the shape of the potassium chloride crystal, Ms. Durch said.

The children’s classic mac and cheese long has been criticized for its sodium content, among other ingredients. NuTek has been able to apply its potassium-based ingredient technology to cheese powder manufacturing to deliver an in-market sauce mix with 33% less sodium than the traditional version, Mr. Kaye said.

“Another method of reduction is to utilize metallic blockers to enable additional sodium reduction and mask these off-flavors,” Ms. Wilcox said. Sometimes what works best is to utilize a number of approaches to produce reduced-sodium cheese with the same sensory and key performance attributes (melt and hardness) as full-sodium cheese.

Ms. Wilcox also mentioned the use of whey protein, which is actually a reference to permeate.

“Also called dairy product solids, deproteinized whey or modified whey, permeates is a coproduct of the production of whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, ultrafiltered milk, milk protein concentrate or milk protein isolate,” she said. “Permeate can enhance the salt characteristics of food and is labeled simply as dairy product solids. The challenge with permeate is securing the desired sodium reduction within the standard of identity set for key dairy products such as processed cheese.”

With process cheese, another approach is to use reduced-sodium emulsifying salts, Ms. Zhou said.

“These are typically mixtures of potassium and sodium phosphates and citrates,” she said. “With natural cheese, another option is naturally low-sodium sea salt.”

As always, economics must be considered.

“While our research provides options for processors, we also know these solutions might add to product costs,” Ms. Wilcox said. “A positive is that these sodium-reduction formulations require no changes in the steps of the cheese making process and require no specialized equipment.”