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Salt reduction, many viable solutions

Published: 19-06-2014

Reducing salt in processed food is not easy; it is often an indispensable additive. Salt has three purposes: it is frequently used as a flavor or flavor enhancer, sometimes as a preservative, or as a functional agent, for instance in rising dough. Salt is the cheapest known additive. “There are several solutions for reducing salt in food products,” said Peter de Kok, Principal Flavor Scientist at NIZO food research in Ede, The Netherlands, when asked whether there is a best practice. “The most obvious approach is to gradually reduce the salt content in products. This works only partly because it negatively affects taste. There are a number of different strategies and technologies to reduce the sodium content in our food, like using different types of salt, salt replacers, increasing the availability of sodium, changing the product’s texture, enhancing contrasts and using umami flavors. We are working on reformulating products, which can considerably improve consumers’ salt perception.” It is important to keep an eye on all of salt’s functionalities when lowering salt content. Often, it is not possible to simply eliminate salt. This affects the rest of the product chain as well, for example a product’s shelf life, and must be taken into account.

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Salt replacers
Over the past few years, various parties have developed salt substitutes. These contain cations such as K+, NH4 +, Ca2+, L-lysine HCl or anions such as PO4 3- or glutamine instead of the Na+ ion. One drawback is that many of these salt replacements negatively affect taste. Consumers do not like that. AkzoNobel Functional Chemicals is one of the companies that have developed a salt replacement they call Suprasel OneGrain. It combines sodium, potassium and flavor in a single crystal. This results in an ingredient that tastes like salt and has the same processing characteristics as regular table salt. A baking salt based on the grain can be used to bake bread that contains no more than the maximum 1.5 percent of salt without any reformulation. It turns out that reducing the salt content does not have a negative impact on gluten network formation, crust color and staleness. Suprasel Onegrain was developed in conjunction with fragrance and flavor producer Givaudain.

“We’ve set ambitious goals, but there plenty of ways to attain them.”

Changing texture
NIZO food research is working on reformulating products to enhance their salty taste. De Kok explains how this works: “It’s possible to enhance consumers’ salt perception by changing a product’s texture. In other words, you can reduce someone’s salt consumption without them noticing. As it turns out, we swallow up to 80% of the salt in our food without tasting it.” Studies by NIZO food research have shown that salt perception in porous products can increase by as much as 20% because the salt is more readily available. “Just think of a slice of apple. If you swallow that whole, you barely taste how delicious it is. Only when you chew it, and start the juice flowing, can you taste the apple,” De Kok explained. This type of salt reduction holds promise for various solid and semi-solid products, according to the scientist. Taste tests have shown that subjects perceive meat products with micro-channels as juicier and saltier than the products’ standard formulation.

Six grams per day
Table salt contains sodium, an important mineral that regulates the body’s fluid balance, but which we need only a tiny amount of. Western consumers consume about 8.7 grams of salt per day. That is too much and can lead to hypertension and cardiovascular disease. The WHO recommends a daily intake of 6 grams maximum. People consume a large part of their daily intake of salt unnoticed, in bread, cold cuts, cheese and snacks. Last winter, Edith Schippers, the Dutch Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, signed an agreement with the food industry and the hospitality industry to reduce the salt level in products to make it easier for consumers to eat healthy. This will cut down on salt consumption. The agreement also covers goals to reduce sugar and saturated fat levels in food products.

Enhancing contrast
Another option for reducing salt in food products is to enhance the contrast between tastes within the products. NIZO food research and TI Food and Nutrition have shown that products are perceived as saltier when there are differences in salt level within the product. For example, bread will taste saltier if the salt is not distributed equally throughout the dough. In other words, distributing salt heterogeneously through a product creates the same salt perception as reducing the salt level. This principle can be applied in all product categories in which a heterogeneous salt distribution is stable, such as bread. It does not work in liquid food products such as soups and sauces.

NutraVit Technology

Flavor enhancement
A third approach to salt reduction is adding flavor enhancers. There is a link between cer tain flavors and the perception of flavors. Fragrance is key in this respect. Some flavors induce a salty taste by nature. This principle has been applied in bacon and ham. VION Food Group, FrieslandCampina and NIZO food research have teamed up to create tasty, low-salt meat products that includes flavors naturally present in meat. The results have been spectacular. The various technologies have led to a total reduction of more than 800,000 kilograms of salt in ham and bacon for the UK market since 2008.

Time to get to work
There’s a growing awareness in the West that salt reduction is a necessity. De Kok is convinced that big strides will be made over the next five years. Salt reduction is a priority in the bread, processed meat, ready-to-eat meals and cheese sectors in particular. As De Kok put it, “we’re learning more and more about salt’s function in products and about people’s perception of its taste. That knowledge will enable us to develop healthier, low-salt products. We’ve set ambitious goals, but there are plenty of ways to attain them.”

Alternatives
There are several ways to reduce the sodium content of food products. Which technology is most suitable depends on the type of product.
 TECHNOLOGY Sodium REDUCTION (NaCl) TYPE OF PRODUCT
Reduction Up to 30% All products
Salt substitutes 30 – 50% All products
Changes in texture Up to 30% Products with high water content (e.g. meat, ready-to-eat meals, cheese)
Contrast enhancement Up to 20%

Products with low water content(e.g. bread, candy)

Flavor enhancement 20 – 30% Products whose flavor and texture can be adjusted (e.g. sauces, margarine, composite products)