In the past month, the legionnaires in the fight for sodium reduction have come out in full force. On the heels of required calorie posting for chain restaurants, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a nationwide plan to cut sodium content by 20% over the next five years. To date, 16 food makers and restaurant chains agreed to comply.

In response to the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) report recommending the reduction of sodium intake in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offered a statement proposing it will review the IOM recommendations, suggesting continued work with federal agencies, public health and consumer groups and the food industry to support the reduction of sodium levels in the food supply.

The battle over sodium is nothing new to those in the baking industry. Bakers have already proactively reduced the amount of sodium in bread through the years. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data confirms the average sodium level in a slice of bread has dropped from 254 mg to 180 mg since 1963.

However, when the grain-based food group is meant to support the foundation of the Food Guide Pyramid, it’s necessary to consider the recommended six to 10 servings when figuring total daily sodium consumption from grain-based foods. Given the recent IOM sodium report and FDA awareness of the subject, further sodium reduction in baked foods will become necessary as salt continues to make front page news.

The challenge for bakers and product development departments is that salt in yeast-raised bread and rolls is functional. Understanding the quantity of salt needed for each part of the equation is essential. Like all mathematical equations, you can solve it many different ways. If you are currently using 1.8% salt in your formula today, then your equation will be A + B = 1.8% salt. Planning on a 10% reduction would then move the equation to A + B = 1.62%.

Work performed by Dubois et al. (1984) determined that the range of 1.0 to 1.5% salt (flour weight basis) appeared to be best for bread production.

To reduce the sodium content in bread, its vital roles in breadmaking must be considered. Salt performs three principal functions in bread dough.

Foremost among these is flavor enhancement. Bread without salt has an insipid and flat taste and flavor. Besides contributing a salty taste when present in suffi cient concentration in a food, salt will impart great fullness to mouthfeel, increasing the perception of sweetness, masking possible off-taste and, most importantly, improving the flavor balance.

A second function of salt is to inhibit yeast activity, reflected in reduced gassing rates. Salt alters the osmotic pressures in food, causing microorganisms, including yeast, to lose moisture to their briny surroundings, reducing their vitality. The same inhibitory action of salt also affects potential spoilage mechanisms, aiding in the control of the microflora of dough.

Salt’s third function is its strengthening and tightening effect on the gluten of dough. Evidence indicates a more direct interaction of the salt with flour proteins. The strengthening effect is particularly beneficial in instances where very soft water is encountered or where inadequately matured flours must be processed. Under these conditions, use of maximum amounts, 2% salt (flour weight basis) will help overcome possible diffi culties with soft and sticky dough. During baking, salt retards starch gelling and inhibits pasting.

Compromising the flavor of bread by reducing sodium may also discourage consumers’ consumption of enriched and whole-grain products. This potential reduction in consumption would result in limiting access to key nutrients important for a balanced diet. Since 1941, enriched white bread has included thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron. Folic acid was added to the list of fortification in 1998 in an effort to decrease neural tube defects. If the consumption of enriched white bread was to decrease, the benefits of folic acid enrichment could also diminish.

A gradual sodium reduction approach based on sound science is more likely to be embraced by consumer’s tastes and preferences. Grain products, led by bread and rolls, account for 21% of sodium intake, the largest source of any food category. So don’t wait to move on the sodium issue. The baking industry is not likely to get by under the radar screen on this issue. •