Salt reduction

Why it’s so hard for snack makers to create fake salt

Salt is at the heart of nearly every food…. and flavour aside, sodium also acts as a powerful natural preservative and helps give things like noodles and bread their satisfying texture. Many governments, most recently the American FDA, thinks we’re getting way too much of it. However, salt reduction in packaged foods is no simple task….

The US FDA has drafted guidelines aimed at coaxing food companies to use less sodium. Soda and snack companies have long faced public pressure to curb their use of dietary pariahs such as high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils.

But salt had managed to skate past the same scrutiny, even though Americans are still eating too much of it: about 1,000 excess milligrams every day, according to the FDA.

Researchers have linked salt overconsumption to a higher risk for heart disease—the leading cause of death in the US. The problem is that replacing or reducing the salty goodness of a bag of potato chips isn’t nearly as easy as subbing out some sugar for stevia.

“The technology is very different for boosting sweetness than for boosting saltiness,” says Justin Shimek, CEO of Mattson, which works with food companies to develop new products. At the heart of the problem: the seductive flavour of salt comes from sodium itself.

Knowing this, food companies have spent years hammering away at the problem of lowering sodium without hurting flavour. And they’ve developed a few nifty techniques, though not a true salt substitute.

Big wigs like Nestlé and Mondelēz International have publicly supported the FDA’s call to voluntarily lower sodium levels, which means your favourite binge-watching junk foods are likely to get less salty over the next few years. The trick lies in making sure you don’t notice.

Salty tech

Of course, food makers have the culinary option: swap out salt for natural seasonings like pepper or cumin that can lend a savoury kick to other ingredients. Start-up food brands like Luvo are taking this approach.

But that’s not really a viable solution for big brands like Doritos or Stouffer’s lasagna. People already know what these taste like. Introduce a new flavour and you’ve altered a precious proprietary recipe.

What’s more, eliminating too much salt from a recipe can reduce the shelf life of processed foods. Without enough salt, beef jerky and bagged bagels could wind up rancid or stale before distributors can get them to you. Bigger businesses need a bigger solution.

And for now, true replacements for salt are still in the experimental phase.

“In the sugar world a lot of the artificial sweeteners are all based on replicating sugar,” Shimek says. “But with salt it’s actually the sodium ion that excites your taste buds.”

In the meantime, food companies are working to hack salt itself, altering its properties so that eaters think they’re getting more sodium than they actually are. Using smaller crystals of salt, for example, can help the sodium dissolve quicker, which creates a concentrated salty taste when sprinkled on crackers and chips, Shimek says.

Food scientists at Cargill, meanwhile, have developed a line of low-sodium salt flakes under their Alberger salt brand that are basically hollow spheres of salt. Since the inside of the sphere is hollow, it can dissolve quickly and hit your tongue with a powerful salty impact without so much sodium.

“We look at everything,” says Laurie Guzzinati, a spokesperson for Mondelēz, which makes Ritz, Wheat Thins, and Saltine crackers, among other salty snacks and sweets. “From slowly reducing added salt where technically feasible to particle size to the shape of the salt crystal.”

Along with changing the shape of the salt, food producers can change the texture of food itself to make it seem saltier than it actually is. Bread that has a more porous, spongy texture with large air pockets, for example can actually fool your senses into thinking it’s saltier, says Alireza Abbaspourrad, a food chemistry and ingredient technology professor at Cornell University.

In 2013, German bread researchers found that leaving bread out to rise longer in order to create larger, more course air pockets actually allowed the taste of the sodium to come through faster than in more dense breads.

The closest thing to a stevia for salt is potassium chloride. The compound mimics the flavour and behaviour of sodium chloride (aka table salt) pretty well, except for its signature bitter aftertaste and hefty price tag—up to ten times as expensive as the real deal, says Abbaspourrad.

Price aside, options exist to battle the bitterness. Food companies work with large flavour houses all the time to replicate specific flavours, from cooked strawberry to a warm, sun-soaked key lime. They can also combine flavour compounds that by themselves are flavourless but can block or enhance sensory perceptions of existing flavours when combined. flavour houses are using this technique to create “bitter blockers” that mask the bitterness of potassium chloride.

Try not to notice

Food companies have already started using these approaches to help lower sodium levels. Mondelēz, one of the largest food companies in the world, says it has already managed to cut 1 million pounds of salt from its products in North America between 2010 and 2012. Aside from saying it will work to meet the FDA’s new voluntary guidelines, Mondelēz has also vowed to cut 10 percent of its sodium use in all of its products sold around the world by 2020…..

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