Sodium reduction: When it comes to salt perception, size matters, says MicroSalt

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture credits: GettyImages/Thinglass (left) and MicroSalt Inc (right)
Picture credits: GettyImages/Thinglass (left) and MicroSalt Inc (right)

Related tags Sodium reduction MicroSalt Salt reduction Salt reduction targets

It’s well-known that the smaller the salt crystals, the saltier they taste, which means less is more, an enticing proposition for snack makers looking to reduce sodium. However, simply finely grinding table salt and sprinkling it on potato chips won’t do the job, as you can’t get the particles down to the (microscopic) size that really makes a difference… plus they lose their free-flowing properties and stick together.

Enter MicroSalt​. Engineered using a patented process that reduces particle sizes from 200-500 microns to under 2 microns, MicroSalt has the consistency of powder (but doesn’t clump together as long as it remains dry) and can help snack manufacturers slash sodium by 50% and retain their clean labels because it is listed simply as ‘salt’ on the ingredients list.

The process – enshrined in the US patent 8,900,650 B1​ and updated by the pending patent 16/535703​ ​ - involves dissolving salt in water, adding a food-grade carrier such as maltodextrin or gum arabic (which adheres to thousands of nanoparticles of salt and prevents big salt crystals from reforming), and then rapidly drying/evaporating the solution.

The food-grade carrier is classified as a processing aid, and does not have to be listed on the label,* said MicroSalt Inc** CEO Victor Hugo Manzanilla, who launched the ingredient in 2019, and unveiled CPG products (SaltMe branded potato chips) featuring it on Amazon​ ​and in select retailers last year as a proof of concept.

The tiny salt particles, which deliver a disproportionately salty taste for their size by maximizing surface area relative to volume, are ideal for dry-surface topical applications such as chips, nuts, popcorn, crackers, pretzels, and other products inherently low in moisture so that their structure is maintained, said Manzanilla, who is currently raising money to support expansion into the US and Mexico, which recently instituted​ labeling laws requiring companies to warn consumers if products are high in sodium (among other things).

Higher surface area to volume ratio = saltier taste...

For topical applications of salt, where MicroSalt is applied to the surface of potato chips or popcorn, for example, regular table salt is not immediately soluble in saliva because of its high density and relatively large particle size.

And given that most chips are only briefly chewed and swallowed, manufacturers have to add more salt (and therefore more sodium) to compensate for its incomplete dissolution and the short mouth residence time, coupled with the fact that larger salt crystals are less likely to stick to the snacks, said Manzanilla.

Because more of the MicroSalt particle surface is exposed to saliva, the dissolution rate is greater, enabling a smaller amount to deliver a far saltier payload, while its diminutive size means it’s better at sticking to the surface of snacks, he said.

While the original patent was acquired by the company, the follow-up patent (pending) credits Manzanilla and colleague Javier Contreras, who refined the process after translating the technology outlined in the original patent into a commercial-scale production process.

“Everything that was done in that ​[original] patent was in a pilot plant​,” said Manzanilla. “When we started doing large scale production, we learned how to optimize things, the ratio between the carrier and the salt, the right temperature, pressure, and so on, so we filed a second patent ​[which has enabled him to further reduce particle size and increase the ability of those particles to adhere to/coat food products].”

Given that salt is often part of a seasoning mix, MicroSalt has been blended with seasonings from flavor houses and performs well, in part due to the weight that the carrier delivers to the salt nanoparticles, he said.

'MicroSalt is price competitive with [commonly used salt substitute] potassium chloride'

Right now, potassium chloride remains the go-to tool for more significant reductions in sodium, although blends of salt, tomato concentrates, mushroom and seaweed extracts​ ​can work well in some applications​, along with culinary approaches utilizing herbs and spices to make foods more flavorful without salt.

Flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) - a much-maligned substance​​​ which the FDA says is safe – is also being deployed in some applications, although it remains on the ‘unacceptable ingredients’ lists of many retailers.

Like MicroSalt, some companies have also played around with other ways to modify the structure of salt (eg. Cargill’s flake salt, Tate & Lyle’s Soda-Lo hollow microspheres​) such that smaller amounts can go further, although there are pros and cons to each approach, he claimed.

Other firms, meanwhile, are exploring alternative processing technologies for foods that are currently highly seasoned because existing processing techniques such as retort cooking can reduce flavor intensity.

But when it comes to snacks, MicroSalt is proving attractive because it’s a simple, drop-in solution enabling significant sodium reductions without any negative labeling implications, argued Manzanilla.

Although more expensive than regular salt, MicroSalt is price competitive with potassium chloride.”

Fundraising and scale-up

So where do things stand commercially today?

We’re already producing​ [commercial quantities of] product, so we have two ​[b2b] customers right now that are using MicroSalt – on almonds and tortilla chips - and several customers in the testing phase,” ​said Manzanilla, who has partnered with Gehring-Montgomery, Hanks Brokerage and Accurate Ingredients to expand distribution and sales in the US, and with FXM Ingredients to expand into Mexico.

“The big chunk of money will be for marketing and sales," ​added Manzanilla, who has partnered with contract manufacturers in the US to produce larger quantities of product, and is currently raising​ funds to expand the business.

To date, MicroSalt Inc has been funded by TekCapital, he said. "They funded the company for the first ​18 months until we were ready for a crowdfunding campaign. But we have no debt with TekCapital; we paid back in shares."

*​In an application for food/snacks, MicroSalt will always be a processing aid, said Manzanilla. "But in the end, this is a decision for each company if they want to list the carrier or not because the regulation is not black and white. If we sell MicroSalt as a consumer product such as a salt shaker for home use, we very likely will need to list the carrier because in that case, the carrier level may be significant."

**Florida-based MicroSalt, Inc is the US subsidiary of UK-based Salarius Ltd.  

When will the US finalize sodium reduction targets?

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine urged the FDA to tackle sodium in processed foods. In 2016, the FDA proposed voluntary guidelines, setting two-year and 10-year goals for 158 food categories… but they were never finalized. So is 2021 – with a new administration - the year that sodium reduction will move back up the food policy agenda?

The FDA has not committed to a timeline, but told FoodNavigator-USA last month that it “has been working diligently on final guidance for industry with voluntary short-term targets for sodium in various food categories.”​​

Given that “about 70% of the sodium we consume comes from processed and restaurant food, successful sodium reduction depends on reducing sodium across the food supply​​,” added a spokesperson. Read more HERE.​ 

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