Ingredients, such as mushrooms and broths, and flavors reflective of various cooking techniques, can all improve the taste of reduced-sodium foods.

Why does lowering sodium in processed foods continue to be such a hot-button topic? While salt can enhance flavor in food, excessive sodium intake can have big implications for the nation’s health. Consuming more than the recommended daily allowance of sodium can raise blood pressure, which can lead to an increase in the chance of heart attack. Excess sodium consumption has been shown to cause kidney disease or stroke, and studies have also linked it to an increased risk of stomach cancer and osteoporosis. Since heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, the implications of lowering sodium consumption are clear--limiting sodium can be an important part of a healthier lifestyle.

There are initiatives to limit salt intake, and New York City has led the way with some salt restriction legislation. New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is coordinating a nationwide effort to voluntarily reduce salt levels in restaurant and processed foods by at least 25% in the next five years. The National Salt Reduction Initiative was unveiled in January 2010; part of its plan is to create targets that will provide a comprehensive framework for sodium reduction in the nation’s food supply. Included in the plan are ways to monitor progress. The FDA is also debating whether to set new limits on sodium. The American Heart Association is pushing for a 50% reduction in the amount of sodium in processed foods--according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, that 50% reduction is estimated to be able to prevent 150,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease, annually.

These low-sodium initiatives are not pushed solely by government and health agencies. Consumers have shown they are highly aware of the foods they are eating and are searching for additional low- and reduced-sodium options. More than half of consumers are monitoring the amounts of sodium in their diet, and the demand for low- and reduced-sodium products will only continue to grow, as consumer awareness increases, and health issues are more closely scrutinized to find new ways to prevent disease and improve health.

Importance of Salt to Processed Foods
The majority of sodium in the typical American diet does not come from the salt shaker; it comes from prepared and processed foods. Sodium is important for a healthy body. It is essential to help maintain the balance of fluids in blood cells and is also used to transmit information in nerves and muscles. Salt also aids in the uptake of some nutrients from the small intestine. While it is vital to life, experts have stated 220-500mg of sodium per day is sufficient to maintain these functions. The recommended daily allowance of sodium is currently 2,400mg for an adult, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. However, studies show the average American is consuming almost twice the recommended daily allowance of sodium. Where is the increased salt intake originating? Sodium is comparatively low in natural, unprocessed foods, and only about 11% of sodium in the average diet comes from adding salt to season foods, while cooking or eating. In comparison, 77% of sodium consumed is found in prepared or processed foods. Salt is important in food processing and is added to processed food for many reasons: to enhance flavor; improve texture; as a preservative; inhibiting the growth of bacteria; preserving color; and in regulating the fermentation of foods. Sodium adds a savory note and enhances sweetness and other flavors; it can also help disguise metallic or chemical off-notes.

With potential legislative action and consumers demanding more low-sodium options, what are the choices for salt replacement on the market? There are many ways to replace sodium, all with advantages and disadvantages. The substitution must be evaluated on an application-by-application basis, to decide which option(s) is the best fit. Typically, a combination of methods and ingredients are used to create the best product. Salt can be complicated to replace, as it has the ability to add flavor, but it does not have a single function in a flavor system; it often serves a functional role and has a part in balancing the overall flavor system. Frequently, the first choice has been potassium chloride (KCl) to replace some of the sodium in a formulation. There are some big drawbacks to formulating with potassium chloride, however: the bitter notes associated with KCl, the cost and the tendency for potassium chloride to enhance metallic notes. Potassium chloride can be a good option for acidic items, such as hot sauce, where the off-notes are easily masked, but a poor choice for more delicately-flavored products. Using KCl in combination with other flavor enhancers and/or a bitter masking agent can help alleviate the bitter component KCl can impart, but it is not the perfect solution for sodium reduction.

While not a sodium replacement, one method gaining popularity as a way to boost flavor is to create a heightened umami flavor profile, which can help increase the apparent saltiness in foods. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), inosine monophosphate (IMP) and guanosine monophosphate (GMP) are all used for this purpose. These umami-producing substances are synergistic with each other, providing more impact than when used alone, so they typically are utilized in combination to provide maximum flavor enhancement. There are some down-sides to using these products. Like most salt replacers, they are more costly than salt, and some can impart an undesirable flavor of their own. Some may be worried about the perception of MSG among consumers, and there may be a potential sensitivity for some individuals, if MSG is used in high amounts.

Another method is to use a concentrated tomato serum. This is a colorless, flavorless liquid concentrated from tomatoes, which are naturally very high in glutamic acid, to create a unique umami flavor enhancer. There are also enzymes that produce savory flavors, such as autolyzed yeast extracts (AYE) and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins (HVP). AYEs and HVPs are produced when enzymes or acids are used to hydrolyze proteins, producing the smaller amino acids, peptides, monosaccharides and Maillard reaction products that add an intense umami flavor, when added to a product.

Clean Label Assists for Reduced Sodium
There are other options for salt replacement that assist with clean-label efforts. The umami-boosting impact can also be achieved by adding ingredients in the formulation that are naturally high in umami flavor. Some of these ingredients include  tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, meat products, savory broths and soybeans, to name a few. One inexpensive option is the use of reduced-sodium soy sauce to increase umami notes, while reducing sodium. Another way to make sodium reduction less noticeable is to boost the overall flavor perception. Cooking techniques that can impart bold flavor profiles, such as smoking, grilling, broiling, etc., can offer big flavor to otherwise bland products. This can occur by using one of these cooking methods for the protein or by adding fire-roasted vegetables, natural smoke flavors or even smoked products, like chipotle peppers.

Increasing the herb profile is another method to increase flavor intensity, while lowering salt levels. Or, consider adding a spicy kick from hot peppers, boosting the heat levels to achieve a more flavorful dish. Finally, consider the balance of basic flavors and the overall flavor profile. Reduction of salt reduces the overall flavor profile, and when not compensated, will result in a diminishment of flavor. By increasing acidity, the final product can become brighter, and acid also can enhance other flavors. Increasing sweetness levels also can help mask bitter notes and off-flavors. As mentioned previously, the biggest flavor boost, when replacing salt, can be to boost the umami flavors in the dish.

Unfortunately, the key to replacing salt is not a simple task. Many factors need to be considered, and each formula needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The best results are achieved by using a combination of several ingredients and methods to create low-sodium options that are healthier, and, just as importantly, deliver great flavor. pf

Website Resources: -- Type “sodium” into the search field -- Type “low sodium” into the search field for general articles on the topic, research, recipes and more -- USDA’s “2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” Chapter 8, which deals with sodium and potassium