Food manufacturers are being challenged by public health officials and nascent consumer demand to develop reduced sodium products. The recently proposed voluntary guidelines issued by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are only the latest salvo in an effort that initially was begun in the United Kingdom and now spread to the United States.

The goal of the New York City initiative, which was announced on Jan. 11, is to cut the salt in packaged and restaurant foods by 25% over five years. But many food companies, such as the Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J.; ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha; Sara Lee Corp., Downers Grove, Ill.; and Unilever USA, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., have been working to reduce sodium levels for a number of years.

“We are doing quite a bit of sodium reduction work; it is about a third of the work I have been doing recently,” said Chris Warsow, corporate executive chef for Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Northbrook, Ill. “Other than the water, it is the least expensive ingredient, but has most of the flavor. In some product types it can be a challenge (to reduce).”

To help product developers with potential sodium reduction strategies, Mr. Warsow said the use of bold flavors may help in reduction efforts. In early January, Bell Flavors & Fragrances issued its 2010 top 10 savory flavors (see sidebar), which include flavors such as sriracha, which is a chili garlic sauce with Vietnamese roots, brown butter and black garlic.

“Using bolder flavors may be a useful way to reduce sodium in some applications without compromising taste,” he said.

Eileen Simons, director of applications within Symrise, Inc.’s savory business unit, said product developers face a variety of challenges in sodium reduction efforts depending on the products in question.

“With bacon there is a situation where salt plays a functional role and enhances the flavor,” she said. “With chicken and beef products, there is more of a complexity around sodium.

“With a chicken product, for example, you may have the roasted flavor notes, fatty notes and the meaty notes. Underlying that you may also have carrot, celery and spice notes. There are layers of flavor involved and when you start moving them is when you see changes in the delivery of specific flavor profiles.”

Ms. Simons said minor changes in salt levels may alter the “flavor balance” of a product and it is something product developers need to be aware of all of the time.

“We’ve worked with cheese products where we will reduce the sodium level and a sharper, more acidic note will become prevalent,” she said.

Mr. Warsow said soup is one of the hardest products to work with in terms of sodium reduction.

“Developing a good tasting low-sodium chicken noodle soup is probably one of the holy grails of sodium reduction,” he said. “Potassium chloride will give you the functionality of salt, but then you have to cover up the bitter, metallic flavor of the potassium.”

Products in which salt also plays a functional role present some of the biggest challenges, Ms. Simons said.

“You have to find other ingredients that can provide some of the functional attributes being lost when sodium levels are reduced,” she said. “It means you are back to the balancing act, but it becomes more complicated.”

Compounding the challenges inherent in many sodium reduction efforts is the fact consumers are adapting as sodium levels in some products decline.

“I think holding full sodium products, something like a soup that may have 960 mg of salt, won’t work as the gold standard anymore,” Ms. Simons said. “Consumers are getting educated and now may consider a soup with 960 mg of salt as too salty. There is a silent drift going on as salt levels are dropped and consumers are adjusting. The taste changes will add complexity to sodium reduction in the future."