Forget about the latest scientific news that restricting sodium intake provides no measurable health benefits and may indeed raise the risk of early death from cardiovascular disease. Questioning years of research, such contrarian findings generate headlines, but they haven’t dented ongoing efforts by regulators and the medical community to reduce sodium in the American diet and America’s processed foods.

Formulators continue to struggle with cutting sodium out of baked foods. “People think of canned soup and other packaged products when they hear ‘sodium,’ but baked goods can be a significant source,” said Mark Rice, senior sales manager, Clabber Girl Corp., Terre Haute, IN. He observed that one average muffin can carry almost 20% of the recommended daily allowance of sodium, pegged at 2,300 mg per day by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Several commonplace ingredients add sodium to baked foods. Of course, there’s sodium chloride, aka salt, which accounts for half of all sodium in most items, especially bread. But in sweet goods and cakes, chemical leaveners — the sodium bicarbonate that provides the leavening gases and the sodium-based organic acids that release those gases — pose the problem.

“Leavening acids can contribute upward of 35% of the sodium content of baked foods,” said John Brodie, technical service manager, bakery, Innophos, Inc., Cranbury, NJ. Changes in chemical leavening systems can substantially alter sodium levels. He described how replacing the industry standard sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP 28) with Innophos’ Cal-Rise, which contains calcium acid pyrophosphate (CAPP) and anhydrous mono­calcium phosphate (AMCP), cuts overall sodium content by 20 to 35%. “This allows formulators to keep the salt in their formulations and not affect the flavor profile while achieving their sodium-reduction goals.”

During the past few years, Innophos and other suppliers of leavening ingredients developed several alternatives to sodium-bearing baking sodas and baking powders — alternatives that enable a comprehensive makeover of chemical leavening systems for commercial bakers. Lately, those substitutes have entered the retail market, too.

There’s a nutritional bonus involved as well. When converted to using potassium-based baking soda and calcium-bearing leavening acids, baked foods have the potential to boost intake of two nutrients currently considered to be underconsumed: potassium and calcium.

Opening up choices

In recent years, chemical leavening choices expanded with the addition of calcium-based organic acids and reconsideration of potassium bicarbonate. About two-thirds of chemical leavening users blend their own baking powders. For these companies, the new choices add flexibility to the sodium-reduction toolkit, but they must consider cost, availability and functionality factors.

Potassium bicarbonate, for example, provides a drop-in replacement for sodium bicarbonate with the same performance profile for most uses, according to Rob Berube, manager, technical service, Church & Dwight Co., Inc., Specialty Products Division, Performance Products Group, Princeton, NY. However, the potassium analog has a “significant upcharge.” “Ammonium bicarbonate is far more versatile than commonly thought, but it does have limits,” he added. “For some applications, partial replacement of sodium bicarbonate with Flow-K potassium bicarbonate is the optimal answer.”

When potassium bicarbonate releases all its carbon dioxide, the finished product’s physical characteristics will be no different than when using sodium bicarbonate. But if an excess of soda remains, the color will darken slightly because of the marginally higher pH of the residual carbonate salt, according to Mr. Berube. “Taste is not an issue as might be expected with other potassium salts,” he said.

Ammonium bicarbonate volatilizes completely at temperatures above 60°C (140°F), thus it can be used without a leavening acid, leaving no residual salt. “However, its use is limited to products with no more than 3 to 5% finished moisture,” Mr. Berube said. Higher moisture levels will retain ammonia, negatively impacting taste and odor. Because of the odor, ammonium bicarbonate does not suit dry mixes or refrigerated dough products.

“For sodium reduction, a formulator may consider a partial or complete substitution of sodium bicarbonate with potassium bicarbonate,” explained Barbara Bufe Heidolph, principal, marketing technical service, ICL Performance Products LP, St. Louis, MO, noting that substitution has consequences in cost, flavor, color and texture. “There are many choices for the leavening acid, choices that are zero- or low-sodium and have equivalent functional performance to sodium-based leavening acids.”

ICL tailored its new Levona line of time-delayed-release CAPP leavening acids to replace SAPP in the slow-release RD1 form to the faster-release styles 26, 28 and 40. The company offers fast-reacting HT monocalcium phosphate (MCP) and Py-Ran AMCP as well as heat-triggered dicalcium phosphate dihydride (DCP). Blends including Pan-O-Lite (MCP plus sodium aluminum phosphate, aka SALP) and Stabil-9 (AMCP with SALP) combine sodium- and calcium-bearing components.

Adapting baking powders

For users of prepared baking powders, the news is equally good. For example, Clabber Girl and Innophos collaborated to develop two reduced-sodium, multi­functional, double-acting baking powders. InnovaFree sodium-free baking powder with Cal-Rise can cut sodium by as much as 50% in many baked foods, and InnovaBake reduced-sodium baking powder with Cal-Rise will decrease sodium by 25%. Clabber Girl’s retail-branded Rumford double-acting, aluminum-free baking powder made with CAPP and MCP diminishes sodium in home-baked foods by up to half.

Chemical leavening suppliers emphasize that low- and no-sodium blends should act as 1:1 replacements for conventional baking powders. “To ensure product quality and consistency, the same amounts of the reduced-sodium and sodium-free baking powder should be used in place of typical baking powder,” explained Nita Livvix, R&D manager, Clabber Girl Corp. “There is no need to lower the salt in the formulation when using our sodium-reduction products. The finished baked goods will result in the same quality, color and flavor as seen in a typical baking.”

Encapsulated leavening acids help address performance questions. “Sodium-containing leavening acids are quite easily exchanged for calcium forms of appropriate organic acids,” said Kristine V. Lukasik, PhD, manager, scientific and regulatory affairs, food and nutritional ingredients, Balchem Corp., New Hampton, NY. Additionally, Balchem developed reduced- and zero-sodium baking powders as drop-in solutions. “Existing baking powders can be replaced 1:1 with Bakesure baking powders with no further changes,” she said.

Digging into performance

The beauty of switching to low-sodium leavening agents is that most consumers won’t notice the change. “By using sodium-free or reduced-sodium baking powder and keeping the salt at the same level,” Ms. Livvix said, “the product does not have to sacrifice flavor to achieve a reduction in sodium and maintain performance.”

Still, several factors come into play even with drop-in replacements, and the most important is the balance between acid and base, described by the acid’s neutralizing value (NV). This number tells how much leavening acid is needed to neutralize a given amount of bicarbonate. Because of its higher molecular weight, 19% more potassium bicarbonate will be needed to deliver an equal amount of carbon dioxide, according to Mr. Berube.

“Second, be aware of leavening attributes such as rate of reaction,” Mr. Brodie said. When preparing low-sodium retail bakery mixes, the need for fast leavening requires blends such as Innophos Actif-8, or if no-sodium qualities are desired, then the company’s Cal-Rise combined with MCP can do the job. “Industrial and food service mixes will need slower leaveners such as Cal-Rise or Dough-Rise,” he added.

Reducing the sodium content of chemically leavened baked foods doesn’t necessarily require elimination of all sodium-containing ingredients. Don’t forget that for many products, the sodium-bearing ingredient remains the best functional and economical choice.

Concerning baking soda, “when such a choice can be made, the functionality and taste of sodium bicarbonate is generally superior to and more cost-effective than potassium bicarbonate,” Dr. Lukasik said.

Leavening acids require similar consideration. “Each type of leavening acid has its own attributes,” Mr. Brodie explained. These distinctions provide benefits when combining a sodium-bearing material with a calcium-containing alternative. “Innophos Levair (SALP) contains only 2.1% sodium. The more sodium you can cut with leavening acids, the less need there is for expensive alternates to salt and sodium bicarbonate.”

In the quest to produce good-tasting, low-sodium baked foods, formulators enjoy more choices now than during the 1980s when salt restrictions were first proposed. These include multifunctional potassium- and calcium-rich alternatives, but sometimes, it’s their ability to work side by side with sodium-containing baking sodas and leaving acids that promise the most success.