Overcoming the challenge: Same taste, less sodium
Dairy product developers consider a number of options to reduce sodium.

CHICAGO — Taste reigns when it comes to real-time eating. You may ask: is there any other type of eating? There is. There’s the eating consumers say they do and then there’s what they really eat.

Even though today’s consumers get more than their fair share of health and nutrition advice, studies show if a food is not tasty, they don’t eat it, regardless of how good it is for them. With most consumers, salty, one of the five basic tastes, is delicious. This is particularly true with a number of dairy products, namely cheese, dips and spreads.

The problem with salty is it traditionally has been delivered through the addition of table salt, chemically known as sodium chloride. The sodium portion of the ionic compound is increasingly frowned upon by health and wellness communities. This includes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization.

It is paramount that product developers understand that the words “salt” and “sodium” do not mean the same thing, even though they often are used interchangeably. Sodium is one of the two chemical elements in salt. Both sodium and chloride are minerals and together do a great job of delivering delicious salty taste, but other minerals also provide a salty taste to foods. In fact, an array of flavor-enhancing ingredients is available to boost salty taste without adding sodium.

“With encouragement from F.D.A., food manufacturers are looking to new ingredients that mimic the taste and functionality of salt,” said Kara McDonald, vice-president, global marketing communications, U.S. Dairy Export Council, Arlington, Va. “The F.D.A. has advised manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the level of sodium in their products within the next two to 10 years after finding that most Americans consume more than 1.5 times the daily recommended intake.”

Consumers need to be educated about the fact that sodium is vital to human life. The body needs relatively large amounts of sodium to operate properly. Sodium is involved with nerve and muscle function, fluid balance and blood pressure. Without sodium, the body shuts down.

Shoppers understand the important role food choices play in their health, yet still struggle to make changes to improve food selection, according to results presented in the 2016 Shopping for Health Report, compiled by The Food Marketing Institute and the publisher Rodale. The study was based on an on-line survey of 1,404 Americans, which took place mid-November 2015.

Two in three shoppers (66%) agreed food choices are an important factor affecting their health, according to the survey. Almost the same number (62%) viewed the food they eat as medicine for the body and, as such, try to buy a mix of foods that will offer different health benefits.

Sixty-seven per cent of shoppers generally read food labels to see what is in the foods they buy, with more than half (53%) saying the salt/sodium content of foods concerns them. Salt/sodium are second on the list, right behind sugar/artificial sweeteners at 55%. Interestingly, one-third of consumers surveyed say they are buying more foods that are lower in sodium, as compared to the previous year.

The F.D.A. proposed the aforementioned voluntary sodium reduction goals on June 1, 2016. They were based on data showing the average sodium intake in the United States is approximately 3,400 mg per day. The draft short-term (two-year) and long-term (10-year) voluntary targets for industry are intended to help the American public gradually reduce sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends people consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.

The science supporting the relationship between sodium reduction and health indicates that when sodium intake increases, blood pressure increases. High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death in the United States.

The F.D.A. is encouraging adoption by food manufacturers whose products make up a significant portion of national sales in one or more categories and restaurant chains that are national and regional in scope. Cheese is part of the mix.

“Currently some food companies are making progress, but part of the problem identified by F.D.A. has been the focus on making a few foods very low in sodium, instead of making most foods a little lower in sodium,” said John Klees, project coordinator for global marketing at the U.S.D.E.C. “The F.D.A. proposal would provide the industry common targets across a broad range of foods.”

A toolbox of ingredient options

Dairy processors have a range of ingredient systems to lower sodium content without impacting taste, or, when it comes to natural cheese, safety and functionality. That is because the relationship cheese has with salt is much more than flavor.

During the manufacture of natural cheese, salt is added to the curd once the desired pH is attained. This helps control fermentation and proteolysis by regulating starter cultures and enzymes. Salt also lowers the water activity of cheese, which prevents the growth of undesirable microorganisms. Without salt, natural cheese would have an unacceptable soft body and short shelf life due to undesirable microbial growth and enzymatic activity. It also would be bitter and bland.

Process cheese relies on natural cheese as its base ingredient. Process cheese is produced by blending natural cheese of different ages and degrees of maturity with emulsifying salts and other ingredients. This is followed by heating and continuous mixing to form a homogeneous product with an extended shelf life. The emulsifying salts are responsible for making process cheese flow when heated, rather than stretch, which is what you get with melted natural cheese.

When it comes to cheese, salt is as important as the milk and cultures, but maybe not at the historical addition levels. Reducing the salt content of cheese, even if just by 10%, may make it more appealing to the many consumers trying to reduce their sodium intake. When the cheese is combined with lower-sodium tomato sauce and even lower-sodium crust, pizza may be added back to the menu for some on sodium-restricted diets.

Finding a suitable substitute for sodium chloride historically has been difficult because of salt’s unique clean taste and flavor-enhancing properties. However, when it comes to function, sodium and potassium work similarly in managing moisture to reduce microbial growth and control the onset of pathogens, which is why cheese makers often replace some sodium chloride with potassium chloride.

The drawback to traditional potassium chloride is its salty flavor is tasted slower than that of sodium chloride. It also has a bitter aftertaste. In recent years, suppliers have managed to identify various technologies to overcome or mask potassium’s bitterness with the use of other ingredients or processing technologies. The ingredients also may assist with lowering the sodium content of dairy-based dips, such as French onion, nacho cheese and ranch, as well as spreads, including those based on cream cheese and process cheese.

Some suppliers offer flavors that function as bitter blockers, which assist with the swap of potassium chloride for sodium chloride. Metallic blockers also may assist when other minerals are used for enhancing purposes. Sometimes what works best is to use a multi-system approach.

A concept that works in most dairy products, natural cheese is the exception, is permeate. Permeate is a coproduct of the production of whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, ultra-filtered milk, milk protein concentrate or milk protein isolate, ingredients used in many foods and beverages for protein fortification. To concentrate the protein in the ingredients, select components, mainly minerals, are filtered out. These minerals have been shown to enhance the salt characteristics in a range of foods, including process cheese, dips and spreads. Permeate is labeled simply as dairy product solids on the ingredient panel and has minimal contribution to sodium content.

“Some may see F.D.A.’s new voluntary guideline as a barrier, but there is definitely an opportunity to ease consumers into a healthier diet without them noticing,” Ms. McDonald said. “By taking a stealthy approach, slowly reducing sodium levels in products over two to 10 years, consumers are less likely to recognize the formulation difference. However, manufacturers still may hesitate in fear of losing good taste, but a reduction in sodium does not have to mean sacrificing flavor.”

In the United States, most food marketers have opted to make ingredient adjustments without flagging total sodium reduction in order to prevent any preconceived notions that the food will taste inferior. In order to identify these lower-sodium foods, consumers often need to compare Nutrition Facts labels.

Feta cheese with less sodium
Greek cheese processor Olympus Dairy prominently markets its new 25% less salt feta.

Some marketers in other countries are making call-outs on lower-sodium dairy products. For example, in Greece, Olympus Dairy prominently markets its new 25% less salt feta.

In Finland, Valio is building an entire dairy foods platform around its new milk salt, which has application in foods beyond dairy. The company has been perfecting this technology for nearly 10 years.

Milk salt consists of the natural minerals in milk: potassium, iodine, magnesium, calcium, as well as sodium. Milk salt contains nearly 80% less sodium than ordinary table salt, with the salty taste derived from the potassium that milk naturally contains.

“It would be easy to reduce salt in products if we did not have to worry about the taste, but consumers want healthy products, which also taste great,” said Tuomas Salusjärvi, executive vice-president of product development for Valio. “Milk is an endless source of innovations. For years, we have been conducting product development with milk salt, and now we are introducing a unique solution to reducing salt.”

With the new ingredient, the company said it is possible to replace some of the ordinary table salt used in food manufacturing. In doing so, sodium content is reduced, but taste is not compromised. The company uses its new ingredient in the manufacture of Valio Polar cheese and Valio Oivariini spreads. These products have 50% less salt than ordinary spreads and cheeses, without compromising on taste, Mr. Salusjärvi said.

The beauty of such ingredients as permeate and milk minerals is the systems may help boost nutritional profiles since they contain essential minerals. It is all about stealth reduction, because remember, without sodium, the body does not tick.