Due to health or dietary issues—or a just conscious effort to eat better—many consumers are scrutinizing food labels for ingredients they’re trying to avoid. Gluten, trans fats, GMOs and sugar are all getting the cold shoulder from shoppers nowadays, as is sodium … sort of.

Despite plenty of research tying a high-sodium diet to high blood pressure and the risk of developing heart disease, many American still like their salty foods. A growing number of people, however, are seeking out no-sodium and lightly salted products.

“Sodium reduction is still a priority for consumers, and I believe it will always be,” says Bill McKeown, vice president-product innovation, AB Mauri North America, Wilsonville, OR. “The health benefits are well-documented.”

Nancy Gaul, senior category manager, health and wellness, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, IL, agrees that sodium is a top concern among consumers. “In fact, data from Innova Market Insights tells us that 83 percent of U.S. consumers say they are concerned about their sodium intake,” she says, citing original research conducted by the company in 2013. “And another study from the NPD Group says that sodium is one of the top three items consumers are looking for on labels.” (“Eating Patterns in America,” 2013)

Mel Mann, director-flavor innovation, Wixon, St. Francis, WI, says consumers are continuing to steer clear of nutrients consistently appearing on “avoid” lists, such as fats, sugars and salt, showing preference for foods publicized as contributing to a healthy diet, such as fibers, grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables and seafood. He notes that fads like gluten-free and the Paleo diet continue to play out with consumers. “But overall, consumers appear to be taking a more common sense approach to food selection as far as dietary concerns,” he says.

But some people in the ingredients industry say consumers’ intentions and actions aren’t always in synch when it comes to what they eat.

“A lot of consumer research and data points to consumers being concerned about sodium reduction, but then not shopping or eating that way,” says Meredith Bishop, principal development scientist, Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings, part of ConAgra Foods’ Commercial Foods segment, Omaha, NE. “I think there is still a disconnect between what consumers say they want and what they actually purchase. It has to be a balancing act—a food must taste good, but still be considered ‘healthy’ in the eyes of the consumer buying it.”

Phil Blanchard, bakery division manager, Agropur Ingredients, La Crosse, WI, cites similar findings. “While we still see sodium reduction as being a good overall objective for food manufacturers, we’ve seen the urgency to reduce drastically fade slightly,” he says. “Consumer acceptance in the initial push was low and caused financial backlash for some larger manufacturers in the business. We think the trend is for brands to roll out reductions more gradually to allow consumers time to adjust their taste acceptances.”

Low-sodium options

Despite varying consumer attitudes toward sodium, food processors—including bakers and snack producers—continue to develop new low-sodium products. And ingredients manufacturers are offering the tools they need.

“Cargill has been investing in research to understand the effect of physical characteristics of salt particles on salty taste perception in an attempt to lower sodium in topical food applications,” says Janice Johnson, Ph.D., food applications leader, salt, Cargill Inc., Minneapolis.

Johnson cites a recent company study that compared Cargill’s Alberger Fine Flake Prepared Salt (used on potato chips, corn chips, puffed snacks, cookies and other foods) to table salt in a french fry topical application to determine differences in adherence and salty taste perception. “The results of this study suggested that half the applied amount of Alberger Fine Flake salt resulted in a similar sodium content as the table salt,” she explains. “This suggests that Alberger Fine Flake salt adheres better to the french fry, thereby producing less waste. Sensory results also suggested that the Alberger Fine Flake was more salty than the reference salt (table salt) at an equivalent sodium content.”

In a follow-up study, french fries were salted with table salt or Alberger Fine Flake to produce equivalent salty performance (with no difference in salty taste) by a sensory panel. To achieve an equivalent salty performance, researchers applied 75 percent less Alberger Fine Flake salt to the french fries compared to those treated with table salt. Comparing the sodium content, the Alberger Fine Flake salt had 30 percent less sodium content than the table salt at equivalent salty performance.

“Working with one North American snack cracker manufacturer, Alberger Fine Flake salt was able to help reduce sodium by 15–20 percent, depending on the product,” Johnson adds.

AB Mauri offers sodium-reduction options for tortillas and other products, such as cakes, muffins and biscuits. “We supply a full line of baking powders with reduced to no sodium, based on the needs of our customers,” says McKeown. “Additionally, our Supremo tortilla solution modules provide alternatives that can help reduce the overall sodium impact in tortilla products.”

McKeown says that, initially, the company saw strong demand for no-sodium leavening systems, which now has given way to low-sodium leavening systems favored by the marketplace. “There is no doubt demand for label-friendly, nutritionally-balanced solutions will continue to grow, and our efforts to meet what customers and consumers desire will continue,” he adds.

Taste matters

But consumers still expect new low-sodium products to taste good. “While we know consumers are becoming more interested in the nutritional value of their food, we know that taste is even more important,” says Gaul. “Research from IFIC tells us that 89 percent of consumers say taste is their top purchase driver. So manufacturers that can achieve the best of both worlds—low sodium and great taste—will have a leg up on their competition.” (“Food & Health Survey,” 2013)

Tate & Lyle’s SODA-LO Salt Microspheres can help manufacturers get there, says Gaul. The ingredient achieves sodium-reduction levels of up to 50 percent without compromising taste—because it’s salt. SODA-LO’s hollow, crystalline microsphere shape efficiently delivers salt taste and functionality by maximizing surface area relative to volume.

Kudos Blends Ltd., Cleobury Mortimer, England, continues to offer KUDOS Potassium Bicarbonate as a sodium-reduction tool for chemically leavened baked goods. According to the company, it is the only potassium bicarbonate product on the market to offer hydrophobicity, anti-caking, 1:1 replacement and a fine particle size. In addition, it enables bakers to achieve up to a 50 percent reduction in sodium in products without compromising taste, texture or quality.

Wixon’s KCLean Salt and Mag-nifique Mimic offer bakers and snack producers two low-sodium options. The former delivers the flavor of salt with half the sodium; the latter reduces the metallic character of potassium-based salt substitutes. According to Mann, both can be used in a variety of applications and can reduce the sodium content by as much as 50 percent without affecting taste, texture or functionality.

FlavoGen, Agropur Ingredients’ proprietary 3D Tastant Technology, is unique in its ability to address price, complexity and sodium reduction in bakery formulations, says Blanchard. Labeled as “dairy product solids,” FlavoGen mimics the functional characteristics of—and offers costs saving benefits similar to—whey permeate. Growing in popularity as a new bakery ingredient, permeate has exhibited effectiveness in improving moisture retention, shelf life, browning and more. It can replace other dairy solids within a formulation on a 1:1 basis.

FlavoGen offers additional benefits when used with existing sodium-reduction alternatives: It creates a reaction with potassium chloride and counteracts some of the negative aftertastes associated with mineral chlorides. “FlavoGen dulls the harsh metallic effect associated with these common alternatives to create a more harmonious flavor and tasting experience,” says Blanchard, adding that customers have seen a successful sodium reduction of 50 percent in some applications.

Flavors and seasonings

Besides sodium replacers, bakers and snack manufacturers can turn to low-sodium flavors and seasonings to add flavor, but not sodium, to certain applications.

“We have done some fairly recent work with developing low-sodium flavors and seasonings for use in bakery and snack products,” says Bishop. “Our toolbox of ingredients is constantly changing and updating. We offer a variety of products to meet our customer’s needs—flavors that can be used in bakery applications to increase the perception of salt and build back in some lost flavor and seasonings that are lower in sodium, but still taste great and can be used for lower-sodium snacks, both topically and in dough.”

Gluten-Free Tamari Soy Sauce and Granulated Gluten-Free Tamari Soy Sauce from Kikkoman Sales USA Inc., San Francisco, can help reduce sodium in baked snacks due to their strong umami effect, says Joseph Leslie, national industrial sales manager for the company. “As umami enhancers, these ingredients boost the underlying flavor and deliciousness of snacks, without adding flavor of their own,” he explains. “They are surprisingly effective at increasing salty perception and have the added benefit of masking the off-flavors of sodium replacers.”

Kikkoman Gluten-Free Tamari Soy Sauce products are used in gluten-free bread products and several snacks (potato chips and corn-based items) on the market.

Whether consumers are consciously seeking low-sodium baked goods and snacks or just looking for better-for-you products that their families will enjoy, they won’t have to look farther than their local grocers, thanks to all the low-sodium ingredient now available to bakers and snack manufacturers. SF&WB


Low-sodium ingredient drivers

Bakers and snack producers already have numerous low-sodium ingredients and ingredient substitutes at their disposal when creating new products or reformulating existing offerings. But ever-changing consumer trends and demands will continue to drive the need for and development of more low-sodium options.

“Food trends [will] continue to look at the health benefits that are available,” says Bill McKeown, vice president-product innovation, AB Mauri North America, Wilsonville, OR. “Grain-based food companies will continue to highlight the importance of fiber and protein sourced in label-friendly ways, but there will careful attention given to sodium and fat while formulating new products. Lowering sodium in existing flagship, iconic products will be harder to do.”

McKeown says lowering sodium in products over time may be the best approach. “Sometimes, consumers don’t even realize the sodium reduction unless it is pointed out to them,” he notes. “At the same time, we need to be aware of past international experiences where aggressive sodium reductions have led to category sales declines.”

Nancy Gaul, senior category manager, health and wellness, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, IL, concurs that many food manufacturers are taking “a silent approach” to reducing the sodium content of their products to help lower consumers’ sodium intake. “This ‘stealth’ reduction strategy means marketers aren’t making sodium-reduction claims on packaging, as opposed to ‘overt’ strategies that do make those claims,” she explains.

According to Gaul, stealth reduction strategies are especially prevalent in the snack food category. “More than 50 percent of U.S. potato chip brands used a stealth strategy in 2013, while just 2 percent used an overt strategy, according to an analysis done for Tate & Lyle using data from Innova and IRI,” she says. “Sodium levels in the packaged bread category have also been decreasing without significant on-pack messaging. From 2008 to 2012, average sodium content in new product launches dropped from .49 to .41 grams per 100 grams of bread.” (“Sodium Reduction—Benchmarking Brands: Bakery,” Innova Market Insights, August 2013.)

Gaul adds that while some brands are using overt strategies, they represented only 3 percent of all U.S. product launches in 2013. “Although low, we have started to see an increase in overt marketing year over year since 2010,” she explains. “But rather than using a direct claim like ‘low sodium,’ which might signal to consumers that taste has been sacrificed, we’re seeing marketers use appealing culinary terms like ‘hint of salt’ or ‘lightly salted.’” (Innova Market Insights, 2013.)

Despite consumers’ intentions to eat healthier and purchase reduced-sodium products, food manufacturers know that people won’t buy foods that don’t taste good, regardless of their nutritional benefits.

“The challenge for food manufacturers continues to be on delivering healthy food options that don’t compromise on taste,” says Janice Johnson, Ph.D., food applications leader, salt, Cargill Inc., Minneapolis. “For food scientists, the challenge will be developing analytical techniques that can help them deliver on the entire sensory eating experience—taste and texture.”

Johnson says advancement in analytical techniques, such as X-ray tomography and scanning electron microscopy, can provide insights to the functional role of salt on the structure of a food matrix. “New ingredients or processing techniques used in the development of reduced-sodium food products can be analyzed to evaluate the effectiveness in building back the functional role of salt,” she explains. “In addition, correlating the structure to sensory results will enable food scientists to further develop robust solutions that deliver lower-sodium food products without compromising taste.”

Continued consumer interest in spicy and ethnics flavors, meanwhile, is already offering some bakers and snack producers a way to reduce sodium levels in their products without sacrificing taste.

“High-intensity tastes such as pepper heat, sourness, overall spiciness [and so on] are reducing the need for salt in food as a flavor enhancer,” says Mel Mann, director-flavor innovation, Wixon, St. Francis, WI. “Flavor boosting through the use of natural flavors and seasonings will be a stronger part of the developer’s toolbox, offsetting the tendency to use salt.

 “As sodium levels from salt decrease, consumers will start looking to reduce nonsalt sodium intake. For bakeries, nonsodium versions of leavening agents and dough conditioners will be critical to meeting this consumer demand. Savory foods will need nonsodium-based enhancers that are fully functional and cost-effective as [monosodium glutamate] use is reduced or eliminated.”