While cheese makers remain committed to salt reduction, demand for low-sodium cheese remains pretty lackluster, according to the National Dairy Council (NDC).
In a comment submitted to the Food Safety and Inspection Service as part of its probe into sodium reduction approaches, the NDC praised manufacturers such as Sargento, which had developed cheeses with 25% less sodium, adding: “Consumer acceptance of these products will be important for future sodium reduction efforts.”
But low sodium cheese had not taken the market by storm, it argued: “Low sodium natural Cheddar cheeses have been in the US market for decades… The lack of consumer acceptance is indicated by the lack of market growth of the low sodium cheese category.
“These products continue to account for only a trivial percentage of total retail sales of Cheddar cheese.”
‘Cheddar cheese product’?
And weak consumer demand was only one of the challenges facing manufacturers attempting to cut sodium in cheese, said the NDC.
“For foods that have standards of identify, such as cheese, options to lower sodium and at the same time meet consumer expectations for flavor and other attributes are limited.”
For example, firms wishing to make ‘silent’ or ‘stealthy’ sodium reductions in Cheddar by using a salt substitute would have to rename their cheese ‘Cheddar cheese product’, said the NDC.
“Under a silent sodium reduction strategy, standardized products that use sodium substitutes and deviate from the standard but do not use a nutrient content claim [eg.’low sodium’/’reduced sodium’] cannot maintain the standardized name.
“For example, Cheddar cheese made with potassium chloride as a partial substitute for sodium chloride would not be able to be called ‘Cheddar cheese’. Instead, it could be called ‘Cheddar cheese product’. Thus, while a silent reduction in sodium may be desirable, in this case the cheese could no longer retain its standard of identity name.
“Consumer perceptions of any label changes on a standardized product could negatively impact consumer acceptance.”
Regulators should allow firms to make label claims for 10-15% reductions
Meanwhile, firms that did want to publicize reductions via nutrient content claims had to make significant (25%) reductions – when 10-15% incremental reductions were often preferable - both from a technical and a consumer acceptance perspective, said the NDC.
“Under federal labeling regulations, sodium reductions of at least 25% are needed for permissible nutrient content claims. Step-wise moderate sodium reductions (eg. 10% or 15%)…have the potential to result in a wider array of lower sodium foods options for consumers.
“An incentive to manufacturers could include options for label claims with more moderate sodium reductions.”
Reduced fat cheese requires more sodium, not less
One issue often overlooked in discussions about sodium reduction was the fact that manufacturers were also under pressure to reduce fat, said the NDC.
But when fat is removed from cheese, the water content typically increases, which in turn requires extra salt in order to retain a fixed ratio of salt to moisture, an important factor in maintaining cheese texture, it claimed.
“The functional aspects of sodium in cheese making are related to the concentration of salt in the moisture phase of the cheese… Reduced fat cheeses pose additional challenges for a fixed target for sodium content…”
But it added: “Research into non-aqueous fat-replacers is continuing.”
The cost of reformulation
Another challenge related to the cheese manufacturing process, with many firms having just one brine system, which contained a certain level of salt.
If firms wanted to do small product runs with less salt or a combination of salt and salt replacers, they would have to switch the whole plant to the new brine formulation, or “construct multiple brining systems”, claimed the NDC.
“Since plants only have one brine system, a step-wise conversion to a new manufacturing process… will not be possible. This means that an entire plant must convert all manufacturing for every cheese it makes to the replacement product at one time or construct multiple brining systems.”
Finally, potassium chloride cost a lot more than salt, noted the NDC.
“Potassium chloride currently costs 90 cents per pound vs. 10 cents per lb. for salt. Other potential replacement salts are even more expensive and have less desirable functional characteristics.”