We are about a year and a half into the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Million Hearts initiative to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes in a five-year period. Reducing dietary sodium intake is a critical component of this initiative. This is because excess dietary sodium is identified as a contributing factor in the development of hypertension, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

The words “contributing factor” must be emphasized because sodium is not the “only factor” or even “a factor” in healthy populations. “People who talk about banning salt are not considering all the facts,” said Mark Zoske, CEO, SaltWorks, Woodinville, WA. “Here’s the bottom-line truth: People cannot survive without some sodium in their diet, and reducing your salt intake to a degree that is disproportionate to your body’s specific sodium needs can wreak havoc on your health.”

Unfortunately, that is not always the message being communicated to Americans by many vocal consumer advocates, politicians, government agencies and medical organizations who continue to deem salt Enemy No. 1 in the fight against heart disease. The fact is, setting national sodium intake guidelines and recommendations based on the ideology that “salt alone” may cause high blood pressure and associated premature death, among other alarming health conditions, is a disservice to many because salt in and of itself is not actually bad.

“In fact, nothing could be further from the truth,” Mr. Zoske explained. “Sodium is vital to human life. You can actually live longer without food than you can without sodium. If your body is starving for sodium, you will know it. Moreover, sodium is actually one of the most healthful minerals you can consume, and it plays a vital role in organ function — and the heart is one of those organs. It only becomes dangerous when people consume it in amounts out of sync with their body’s particular needs.”

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, based on Dietary Reference Intakes issued by the Institute of Medicine, recommend daily sodium intakes for the general population to not exceed 2,300 mg. The American Heart Association, on the other hand, recommends 1,500 mg per day.

Health Canada recently offered guidance about the sodium content of processed foods. It targeted a daily sodium intake limit of 2,300 mg and proposed a phased approach over the next four years with most reductions in the 25 to 30% range. In addition to the EU, many more countries now have proposed, pending or active sodium-reduction ­initiatives, including Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the UK and South Africa.

Replacement reality check

“When consumers check Nutrition Facts panels, sodium is second in importance to them, behind calories,” said Janice Johnson, food applications and technology services leader, salt, Cargill, Minneapolis. “Reducing sodium is a constant, serious and growing concern for consumers.”

Yet marketing to this concern is tricky. Previous efforts to cut salt resulted in foods that fell short of taste expectations, and those long-gone products continue to color consumer perception of low-sodium items. “Out of a fear of driving away consumers worried about taste, bakers may not want to remind them on packaging that they are reducing sodium,” Ms. Johnson observed. “In other words, reduce sodium without making a claim — make it a stealth reduction.”

Today’s low-sodium ­approaches will likely take a different path, ­according to Barbara Heidolph, principal, applications research and technical support, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis, MO. “When we look at sodium, often the industry does not roll out new products with claims on the label (low, reduced or no sodium),” she observed. “Rather, companies are making an effort to make their product better for the consumer while ratcheting down the level of sodium, believing that educated consumers will notice.”

Nonetheless, because bread contributes so much to daily sodium load, bakers may wish to be proactive with their sodium reduction projects to show consumers that they are making a heartfelt effort to assist with reducing dietary sodium intake. This sounds easier than it is because quality baked foods rely on numerous sodium-containing ingredients, from basic table salt to leavening agents. Most bakers are learning that the key to reducing a baked food’s total sodium content is a controlled, partial replacement of all sodium-containing ingredients by an ingredient with similar functionality but less sodium.

“Salt is a necessity in most baked grain-based foods — not just for taste, but function, too. It acts as a preservative and texturizing aid,” said Angelique Gunderson, health and wellness platform, commercial lead, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, IL.

The good news is that numerous all-natural, sodium-reduced “salts” have emerged in recent years. Sea salt continues to attract consumer attention. Not only does it enjoy a high level of awareness, but it also possesses a bit of marketing glamour because of its far-away-places sourcing. “We recently introduced a natural sea salt ingredient that combines salts from two seas: the ­mineral-rich Dead Sea and the Red Sea,” said Gil Bakal, marketing director, A&B Ingredients, Fairfield, NJ. “The end result is a salt that provides 50% less sodium without affecting the taste profile of most foods.”

Mr. Bakal pointed out that the combination of natural elements and a proprietary manufacturing process enables the company to ­offer the new sea salt in a cost-effective manner. He further noted that the natural properties of sea salt contain many essential trace minerals the body requires.

From the sea

There’s a reason why these salts differ from other types, according to Mr. Zoeske. “Unrefined, natural sea salts are nothing like their chemical counterpart,” he said. “They are minerals and trace elements that exist in the ocean. Our natural sea salts simply come from solar-dried ocean water, with their crystals forming on their own accord, within concentration ponds and the help of sun and wind. I believe they are given to us for the purpose of nourishing certain aspects of our health and maintaining optimum functionality.”

Such natural action explains the lower sodium content of sea salts, explained Thomas Hultman, export manager, Saltwell North America, a subsidiary of Salinity, Halmstad, Sweden. “We market a natural sea salt that can assist bakers with their sodium reduction efforts because it naturally contains 35% less sodium than regular salt,” he said. “The ingredient is 65% sodium chloride, 30% potassium chloride and 5% other minerals — all in one grain.”

To make this sea salt, the company pumps mineral-rich brine from an underground sea in the Atacama Desert into solar evaporation ponds. Under sunlight, the minerals bake together forming crystals as homogenous grains, each consistent with one another. Being an all-in-one-grain mineral, salt lowers the sodium impact of any food product without sacrificing flavor or functionality, according to Mr. Hultman. 

“It performs very well in bread applications without having to make any changes to the recipe,” Mr. Hultman said. He recommended replacing salt with the company’s alternative on a 1:1 basis, which enables a 35% sodium reduction while retaining the same taste, fermentation and gluten effects as traditional salt. “We have conducted tests in two bakeries on white bread and sourdough, both with great results,” he added.

ICL Food Specialties introduced a sea salt that contains just 1.7% sodium by weight compared with 39% in table salt, thus enabling a 25 to 50% reduction in sodium in many processed foods. “It is a natural mineral derived from the Dead Sea,” said Nancy Stachiw, ICL’s director of applications technology. “As a completely natural compound, it is minimally processed and low in ­sodium levels.”

Compared with conventional salt, the new sea salt maintains ­water activity levels in several products tested, an important natural guard against undesirable microbial activity. Its mineral content provides additional benefits. “Because it has the divalent magnesium ion present, it may help with dough development in baked foods made with reduced levels of salt,” Ms. Heidolph observed.

Great taste, no sodium

Sodium-reduction technologies based on single-grain or single-crystal form seem to be where the baking industry is headed for replacing traditional salt in product formulations. Here’s how this approach moderates a

flavor problem.

While potassium chloride functions well as a sodium chloride ­replacer, it does not taste the same. Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, MN, used patented technology to produce a single-crystal potassium chloride ingredient that maintains the flavor as well as the activity of regular salt, according to Don Mower, president and COO. “This technology significantly reduces the bitterness traditionally associated with potassium chloride,” he said. “Bakers do not need to use flavor systems or maskers to make great-tasting products.

“The technology alters the structure to produce a single crystal format that minimizes the metallic or bitter notes traditionally associated with potassium chloride, as well as providing increased surface area in order to enhance ‘salty’ intensity,” Mr. Mower explained. It stores and functions just like salt and has been used in many baking applications with no rheological changes and no variance in production. In most bakery applications, mixing, proofing and other process parameters remain the same.

This sodium reduction technology is labeled on ingredient statements simply as potassium chloride. “It can reduce sodium levels in bakery and snack applications up to 50% and can be used as a 1:1 ­replacement for traditional salt,” Mr. Mower said.

In recent consumer testing, the company evaluated hamburger buns and biscuits made with this single-crystal potassium chloride. “We were able to achieve a 35% to 50% sodium reduction with no significant differences in overall appearance, flavor, texture or machinability over the control batch,” he observed.

A salt-replacing salt

The sodium-reduction ingredient now offered by Tate & Lyle tastes like salt, labels like salt and functions like salt because it is salt, ­according to Andrew Hoffman, the company’s director of health and wellness innovation. “Since it is salt, it has no bitter or unnatural flavor notes typical of many salt replacers,” he said. “What makes the ingredient unique is its physical shape.”

Using a patent-pending, spray-drying technology, standard salt crystals are turned into free-flowing, hollow salt microspheres. “Hydrocolloid gum acacia facilitates the formation of the microsphere structure,” Mr. Hoffman explained. “Traditional salt particles range from 40 to 800 microns in diameter and are solid. In contrast, this ingredient is composed of smaller, lower-density microspheres that maximize surface area of the salt crystals relative to volume. A clean, salty taste is delivered with lower sodium levels.”

The innovative method was developed by Eminate, the technology arm of Nottingham University; Tate & Lyle has an exclusive licensing agreement with Eminate. 

“In the US and in most countries, this ingredient is labeled as salt for most applications, which is ­beneficial for clean label initiatives,” Mr. Hoffman said. It works best in applications with relatively low water activity and/or fats or oils that protect the salt microspheres. The microsphere shape must be maintained during food processing all the way to the consumer’s tongue to deliver its salty taste, he noted.

“This novel ingredient is already used in or being evaluated in ­applications such as breads, salty snacks and crackers, pastries, biscuits and buns, cookies, and pizza dough,” Mr. Hoffman added. “Typically a 25 to 50% reduction in sodium may be obtained.”

No special handling is required during distribution and storage. The ingredient is available in dry/powder form and is shelf stable for two years under ambient conditions. It is available in two grades: Extra Fine and Fine, with particle sizes of 20 and 200 microns, respectively.

“Extra Fine provides the best distribution in a food matrix,” Mr. Hoffman explained. “It promotes flowability and resists caking in hot, humid environments. For topical applications, such as on a saltine or a breadstick, Fine is the grade of choice and is designed to provide the appearance of salt.”

Functionality imperative

A different salt-based solution from Cargill offers tiny, multi-faceted crystals created through a process that starts with a hollow pyramid shape. “The large surface area of the crystals and low bulk density provide superior adherence, blendability and solubility compared with regular granulated salt,” Ms. Johnson said. “The rapid solubility also provides a flavor burst when used in topical applications.”

The company also offers a ­sodium-reduction ingredient system that allows partial replacement of salt in baked foods, in which case, this ingredient system is declared as “potassium chloride, natural flavors.” Ms. Johnson reported success with making 50%-reduced-sodium chocolate chip cookies that taste similar to the full-sodium control.

Sensient BioPharma and Savory Flavors, Indianapolis, takes yet another approach to reducing added salt in bakery formulations. “This ingredient, which is declared on labels simply as yeast extract, can replace a portion of the existing sodium chloride,” said Sonal Sanghani, director of R&D. Its recommended usage rate is 0.3 to 0.5% in the finished product, depending on the desired level of ­sodium reduction and application.

“We have products specifically for yeast and chemically leavened baked foods,” she said. “We recognize salt has a very functional role in dough products. These yeast extracts maintain the dough’s inherent strength and structure while improving leavening and reducing sodium by 40%.”

Salt’s influence over the physical and sensory properties of baked foods makes its replacement no easy task. With so many salt replacement systems now becoming available, however, heart-healthy baked foods are a dream that can come true.