Though consumers are still not prepared to sacrifice taste for a low-sodium diet,the food industry is beginning to make headway in find alternatives to salt despite numerous challenges, writes Anthony Fletcher.
This was the conclusion of a seminar on salt reduction at the International food Technologists (IFT) conference last week in New Orleans.
And there was no question that salt consumption in the American diet needs to be reduced.
"One in three Americans regularly consumer more salt than is recommended," said Valerie Duffy, associate professor of dietics at the University of Connecticut. "And most of this is in processed food."
It therefore falls to food manufacturers to find ways of reducing salt. The New Dietary Guidelines launched this year provide public guidance for the next five years, and target significant salt reduction.
After links between hypertension and salt were confirmed, the recommended daily amount of salt is now one teaspoon.
But while there was general acceptance that the food industry has a responsibility to reduce salt levels in food - over 75 percent of salt in the western diet is added during processing - there is also recognition from both academics and industry professionals that if a product doesn't taste good, it simply won't sell.
"This is a big challenge," said Duffy. "Taste is still the most important influence in our food choices, and the American diet is increasingly salty due to the intake of processed foods."
Despite its bad press, salt has a number of distinct characteristics that make it extremely attractive to food makers. Apart from being the world's oldest preservative, it can block bitterness in foods, and humans have an innate liking of salt, related to a specific body need, that makes salty snacks attractive.
The challenge then for food industry is to make foods that are lower in salt but still palatable.
Ingedient technology companies such as Linguagen are beginning to develop new techniques to improve the palatability of low-sodium foods. The company has a range of non-caloric natural sweeteners that it claims are indistinguishable from sugar.
'Sweetness potentiators' can also boost the sweetness of sugar by five to 10 times, which is an important consideration both commercially and nutritionally. For example, high fructose syrup is one of the highest costs for soft drink manufacturers. Linguagen's sweetness potentiators could help companies reduce costs.
There are also patented and patent-pending bitter blockers that can help improve the taste of salt substitutes such as KCI.
"But for some products, salt reduction is a significant challenge," said Simon Branch, head of food technology and program manager at RHM Technology. "A further 10 percent reduction in salt can get a significant response and be seen as a step too far.
"In cheese, salt reduction is extremely challenging. In bleu cheese especially, saltiness is part of the attraction. There are also technical challenges that need to be addressed."
Potassium chloride (KCI) is often used as an alternative to salt, but this has its drawbacks.
"Most salt replacers rely on potassium chloride, but this is only so good," said Don Williams, vice president of flavor design and development, McCormick.
"You may also have to include other ingredients to mitigate the bitter effect of potassium chloride."
Indeed, although inhibitors can be used to enhance the palatability of this chemical, food makers might be reticent to do so out of concern that consumers will be put off by the number of additives listed on the label.
"Some products also engender brand loyalty and there are consumers that are always going to buy product X no matter what,"said Branch "So there are a number of factors working against reducing salt."
Scientists have proved that if you raise salt levels, the overall acceptability of a product goes up, then down. There is an optimum point, and the further you go from this optimum point, the greater the commercial risk you are taking.
The food industry must find commercially viable means of reducing sodium levels within these constraints. Williams suggests that food companies can do this by adding more aromatics in their products, and by including more savory / umami tastes.
Garlic is another effective ingredient that can block unsavory flavors and allow salt content to be reduced. "Food makers can also adopt a segmented approach to marketing their products," said Williams. "Instead of just low salt, you can have salt free, low salt and regular. The thing is to provide an alternative."