Baked foods need salt — and not just for flavor. Salt’s important functional roles in gluten modification, yeast control and microbial inhibition make it exceptionally difficult to replace, but it puts bread and buns at the top of the Institute of Medicine’s list of processed foods adding the most sodium to American diets.

Today, good alternatives enable formulators to get away from salt and other sodium-bearing ingredients or, at least, to cut it to more healthful levels in yeast-raised and chemically leavened baked foods.

If you build it …

Will they come? Before starting any sodium-reduction project, you must consider marketplace potential.

“People are just now realizing low-sodium must be part of the healthy eating equation,” said Nitta Livvix, R&D manager, Clabber Girl Corp., Terre Haute, IN. Sodium reduction has begun to figure into product development efforts, she added. “This consumer-driven topic is at the cutting edge of bakery formulating today.”

Uncertainties about the nascent low-sodium market prompt many companies to take a “just in case” attitude. “Sodium reduction is an interesting world,” said Barbara Bufe Heidolph, principal, marketing technical service, ICL Performance Products LP, St. Louis, MO. “Many companies are, at a minimum, developing formulations in case there are mandated sodium limitations.” Others are launching products lower in sodium by 10 to 25% and flagged as such on packages, and some take a stealth approach by cutting sodium content but not labeling the change.

At the starting line

Formulators must understand the functional and flavor angles involved. Janice Johnson, technical leader, Cargill Salt, Minneapolis, MN, described the steps in the process. “First, consider the targeted sodium level,” she said. “Next, determine all the sources of sodium because sometimes more than just salt contributes to sodium content.”

In most baked foods, salt is the single most significant source of sodium, yet there are other sources besides it and chemical leavening. Traditional yeast foods and dough conditioners also contribute, according to Bill McKeown, vice-president of technology, AB Mauri, Chesterfield, MO.

And there are more. Emil Shemer, director, food solutions, Sensient Flavors LLC, Indianapolis, IN, cited butter and whey proteins, too.

When John Brodie, technical service manager, bakery, Innophos, Cranbury, NJ, recommended steps to take during formulation, he also emphasized evaluating costs as part of the process. “I recommend you look at a minimum of two replacement products and run the benchtop evaluations before moving to plant trials,” he continued. “I cannot stress enough the importance of doing multiple plant trials to run with various production conditions.”

Complete elimination of salt may not be necessary. “You don’t need to take out all the salt to achieve a significant sodium reduction,” said Pat Jobe, account manager, ingredient division, Clabber Girl. “Leave your salt the same, but use reduced-sodium and sodium-free alternatives for other ingredients.”

For example, low- and no-sodium baking powders enable preparation of low-sodium chemically leavened products such as tortillas, biscuits, muffins, cakes and many other baked foods. Such baking powders shrink their sodium footprint 50 to 100% by using potassium bicarbonate and calcium salts instead.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sodium reduction. Options depend on target reduction level, cost parameters, leavening system and the use of topical salt. “Often, bakers take a toolbox approach to sodium reduction. They combine different methods to optimize sodium reduction while still maintaining taste,” said Linda Kragt, technical services manager, Morton Salt, Chicago, IL.

When selecting among alternatives, formulators must first decide whether to shoot for full or partial replacement of sodium. The marketing department often directs this choice to best suit claims being made on the package and to target specific consumers.

“For example, you may want the reduced-sodium balloon or icon on your package label so your brand doesn’t get left behind and so it fits on the shelf with other low-sodium products,” Mr. Jobe observed.

A matter of minerals

What does salt do in yeast-raised baked foods? It enhances flavor. It limits microbial activity, holding back undesirable microorganisms but favorably regulating yeast’s growth rate. It strengthens gluten. During baking, it retards starch gelling and inhibits pasting.

For cutting sodium in yeast-raised products, the ingredient of choice will usually be a mineral salt, typically potassium chloride but also magnesium chloride and even choline chloride. Sea salt is essentially a high-mineral-content sodium chloride.

Because potassium chloride has similar physical properties to sodium chloride, it helps maintain salt’s functional effects, according to Ms. Kragt, who recommended substitution rates up to 25% with KaliSel food-grade potassium chloride in yeast-leavened baked foods.

“The most cost-effective option for sodium reduction has historically been potassium chloride,” said C.S. (Sam) Rao, PhD, executive vice-president and chief innovation officer, Nu-Tek Salt, Minnetonka, MN. The company’s Nu-Tek Salt advanced potassium chloride allows a one-third to one-half cut in sodium without bitter flavor.

Proofing time for yeasted foods may need to be reduced slightly. because potassium chloride is less inhibiting to the yeast than regular salt, according to Ms. Kragt.

Smart Salt, a magnesium and potassium salt, has been used successfully in Finland at up to 50% substitution and is waiting commercial trial in the US, according to Deb Rolf, executive vice-president and president, Americas, Smart Salt, Inc., Arnold, CA. By cutting sodium chloride in small increments, the baker can quickly discern any performance differences, she said..

Taste is the big advantage conferred by choline chloride, according to Kristine V. Lukasik, PhD, manager, scientific and regulatory affairs, food and nutritional ingredients, Balchem Ingredients, New Hampton, NY. The company’s C-Salt acts as a topical application on snacks as well as in yeast- and chemically leavened doughs. “Like many salt replacers, it is synergistic with sodium chloride. It does not affect gluten behavior, dough handling or baked product volume,” she said.

Performance on the line

Salt’s required functionality in bread systems can complicate cutting its usage level. Ms. Heidolph recommended formulators test salt reduction from a flavor standpoint and then add back salt as needed to enable functionality. “Reduction alone quite often cannot be the only answer,” she said. Substitutions with ICL’s Salona low-sodium sea salt at up to 50% are possible while still delivering acceptable flavor and volume, with only a slight impact on dough handling.

While sea salt is basically sodium chloride, its high level of other minerals dilutes the sodium content. “The taste is the same,” said Gabriela Salinas, vice-president, operations, Oceans Flavor Foods, Ashville, NC, about the company’s Oceans Flavor Less Sodium Sea Salt, available in 45- and 57%-less-sodium versions.

Flavor as problem solver

Flavor accounts for the chief hang-up with sodium reduction. “Bakers must pay careful attention to flavor aspects,” Mr. McKeown said. “When moving from sodium chloride to alternative salts, flavor profiles might change and negatively impact sales.”

Bitterness, common to potassium chloride, may require a bitter masking agent, and blandness can plague formulations excessively low in salt. But a simple change in topping salt can work for crackers and snacks.

“Bakers may want to consider different salt grades that improve adherence and provide more of an up-front hit of saltiness,” Ms. Kragt said. “Companies may have to consider new dispensing equipment to provide more control of the salt level that is applied.”

The unusual hollow-pyramid shape of Cargill Alberger salt offers a large surface area and quick dissolution when eaten, noted Ms. Johnson. This form is far lower in density and, thus, lower in sodium.

Flavor ingredients are another way to combat taste deficiencies. Sensient natural flavors can convey full salt flavor and have cut salt by at least 50% in bread and 25 to 30% in crackers, according to Mr. Shemer.

Inactive yeast autolysates and extracts are naturally high in nucleotides that bring out the umami flavor in baked foods. “Use of AB Mauri High 5 will enhance the salty notes of low-sodium baked products,” Mr. McKeown said.

Synergy’s Saporesse lactic acid yeast extracts allowed a baker to reduce the sodium content of a cheese bread roll by 20%, said Greg Bach, vice-president, business development, Synergy Flavors, Inc., Wauconda, IL. “Because of their unique properties, the yeast extracts work in synergy with the dough to produce an enhanced, flavorsome loaf,” he explained.

Chemically speaking

To cut the sodium content of chemically leavened products, the formulator must replace sodium-containing leavening acids with sodium-free alternatives. Also, substitution of potassium bicarbonate for conventional sodium bicarbonate can substantially reduce a formulation’s sodium burden.

“Successful sodium reductions include tortillas, cookie mixes, muffins, pizza crust, pancake mixes, tortilla products, sodium-free and reduced-sodium baking powders — the list is continually growing,” Mr. Brodie said, describing uses of Innophos’ Cal-Rise leavening acid, a chemical mixture of calcium acid pyrophosphate and monocalcium phosphate, anhydrous.

Potassium bicarbonate makes a big difference — up to 60% even when keeping sodium acid pyrophosphate as the leavening acid, “leaving some if not all of the added salt,” said Dinnie Jordan, director and founder, Kudos Blends Ltd., Cleobury Mortimer, UK.

Most such substitutions can be done on a 1:1 basis, with the exception of baking powder because of the difference in gassing value. A side benefit of the potassium form is that, unlike potassium chloride, it lacks bitter flavor and can enhance finished product sweetness. “The fine particle size prevents the occurrence of the metallic taste often associated with potassium bicarbonate.” Ms. Jordan said.

As with any chemical leavening system, the formulator must make sure the correct neutralizing value is applied when calculating the amount of sodium-free leavening acid to combine with the bicarbonate. “And when switching from sodium bicarbonate to potassium bicarbonate, you need to check your final product pH because the potassium version tends to increase pH,” Mr. Brodie cautioned.

One-on-one baking powder

If a bakery scales acid and bicarbonate separately, the formula must account for the 19% additional potassium product needed. “But our Balchem Complete reduced-sodium and no-sodium baking powders have that factor already built in,” Dr. Lukasik observed. “We’ve already done the calculations and the work.”

Lower-sodium baking powders are available from several sources, and they allow varying degrees of sodium reduction. “Depending on the variety of baking powder selected, along with formula ingredients, a total sodium reduction of 33 to 50% can be achieved,” said Eric Spelger, bakery applications manager, Caravan Ingredients, Lenexa, KS. “Caravan Low Sodium Baking Powder should perform like the original blend, but sometimes, a greater amount of a low-sodium baking powder option is necessary.”

Low-sodium baking powders such as Clabber Girl’s InnovaFree sodium-free baking powder with Cal-Rise allow 1:1 drop-in replacement of sodium-based chemical leavening systems, according to Ms. Livvix. The company also offers InnovaPhase reduced-sodium baking powder.