Bakers seeking to meet sodium reduction targets can take hope in new research conducted at Oregon State University that shows that consumers are willing to accept lower-salt breads and, if the reductions are small enough, may not even notice.
High sodium intakes are associated with higher blood pressure leading to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The National Salt Reduction Initiative, a coalition of 90 public, state and local health organizations coordinated by the New York City Health Department, notes that despite an move to cut sodium in food promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration in 1982, sodium content continued to rise, and by the early 2000s men in the United States were consuming 48% more sodium on average than they were in the 1970s. The NSRI had set a goal of reducing sodium consumption by 20% by the end of 2013.
The main issue with sodium reduction has always been consumer acceptance. Other issues, such as replacing salt’s functional properties such as preservation, are more easily dealt with. Given that the body naturally craves salt, and that palates may have become accustomed to high sodium levels in the past, food formulators found that consumers reacted negatively to overnight reductions of salt and substitutions with replacements like potassium chloride, which often imparts a bitter taste.
Hence the ‘stealth’ reduction approach, in which salt levels were cut but the result wasn’t prominently advertised. This approach has been given additional impetus with the latest research from OSU’s Food Innovation Center located in Portland. The center conducts large-scale research directly with consumers on food preferences; the approach is basically the focus-group concept writ large. In a recent test, consumers could discern small difference in salt content, and found bigger reductions, while noticeable, still palatable.
The results of a large-scale tests found that consumers can’t the difference when sodium is reduced by 10%. Researchers asked nearly 200 people to sample slices of whole wheat sandwich bread made with normal salt levels as well as ones with 10%, 20% and 30% less salt.
People tasted a difference in the 20% and 30% reductions but they still liked the appearance, texture, smell and taste the same as the normal bread. They also said they would be willing to buy a loaf of any of the four samples.
"It's surprising that reducing sodium by nearly a third did not negatively affect how much consumers wanted to buy bread," said Ann Colonna, a food scientist who manages the sensory science program at the center. "The results suggest consumers would not be able to detect small, incremental cuts to sodium in bread over time."
Colonna noted the relatively small reductions studied in the test would likely not require much reformulation work on the part of bakers.
Colonna said OSU researchers aim to establish baselines that show the level at which US consumers can detect less sodium in bread. The few existing studies on sodium reduction in bread are from overseas and cannot be applied to the United States because taste preferences vary by country, Colonna said.
"The U.S. marketplace and consumers are unique, and food companies need detailed data to reference when potentially reducing sodium levels in the future," she said. "We're trying to get the ball rolling."
Bread is a major contributor to sodium in the US diet, she noted. And the rapid rise in the popularity of Mexican food is a concern, too.
“We would love to do this work in tortillas. That is another area that contributes a lot of sodium,” she said.