Reducing sodium in salty snacks such as chips and crackers seems counterproductive. When consumers choose a salty snack, or even a cheese puff, they expect a certain flavor experience, one that salt is critical in delivering.

“Salt does a lot more than just taste salty, especially in dairy-based snacks,” said John McDonald, Ph.D., R.&D. director, food, innovation and technology group, Land O’Lakes. “Salt enhances the flavor profiles.”

Because salt is so important, whether it’s the dominant or supporting flavor, reducing sodium may be a daunting task.

“Salt really provides many unique functional roles that no single other ingredient does,” said Janice Johnson, Ph.D., technical service and application lead for Cargill Salt. “We understand salt pretty well. It’s universal in that you can put salt in something, and you know what the flavor profile is going to be.”

When snack manufacturers try to reduce salt or replace it, things can become complicated.

Formulators have found many paths to reduce sodium, but each has challenges. Snack manufacturers must work with ingredient suppliers to discover the right avenue for their goals.

“There are several ways to reduce sodium in snacks, but some of them come with taste issues that need to be dealt with,” said Roger Lane, marketing manager, savory flavors, Sensient Flavors.

Formulating for reduction

Reducing sodium, regardless of which avenue a snack manufacturer chooses, will require reformulating, testing and then reformulating again to make sure sodium levels are low enough but consumers will still be happy with the product.

“It’s really trial and error,” Dr. Johnson said. “It’s a long and integrated process to satisfy consumer expectations and meet sodium targets.”

Sometimes the solution to sodium reduction isn’t in a new ingredient or a salt replacer but can be found within the formulation itself. In products relying on other ingredients to provide the flavor, not just salt, formulators can work within the seasoning system to offset any flavor loss when salt is reduced. This was the key to Land O’Lakes’ entire strategy to sodium reduction.

“When we set out to provide sodium-reduced seasonings, we purposely didn’t want to have an off-the-shelf salt replacer, and we’ve been able to do that after two years of research,” Dr. McDonald said.

To avoid artificial flavors, costly replacers and the need for taste modulators, Land O’Lakes worked to understand its seasonings and how salt functioned within them to find ways to tweak the formulas to accommodate the sodium reduction impacts.

“Our breakthrough is the year we spent learning how salt impacts dairy perception for our consumers,” Dr. McDonald explained. “Now we understand as the sodium gets reduced what effect that has, and we’ve developed individual strategies to mitigate those effects. That’s our magic bullet: Learning a lot about the impact of salt and the negative impact of taking it out, and we’ve been able to negate that without using salt replacers.”

One of the reasons Land O’Lakes has been successful is the control it has over its seasonings. The company manages its products from sourcing to manufacturing, formulating and producing the final ingredient in spray dryers.

“When we’re reducing the sodium of an existing ingredient, we have full control over all the components,” said Susan Reed, senior R.&D. manager, customer solutions team, Land O’Lakes. “We’re able to manipulate the building blocks and rearrange them to bring the salt down and bring other components up to balance everything out.”

A closer look

In some applications, salt — in a different form — might be its own solution.

“What can work really well on topical snacks is leveraging the particle size and shape of the salt crystal,” Dr. Johnson explained.

A traditional sodium chloride particle typically used in snacks is a cube shape. However, changing that shape or even the size of the particle can have an impact on how the salty taste is perceived by the tongue and brain of the consumer.

“Smaller salt particles increase flavor intensity through fast dissolution,” said Barry Knudson, senior vice-president, global sales and technical services, NuTek Food Science. “This delivers flavor to the taste buds before consumption, resulting in the need for less salt.”

A similar phenomenon occurs when changing the shape of the salt crystal. Cargill’s Alberger Flake Salts have rough surface areas, which help it adhere to the snacks. These salts are inverted pyramids and have more surface area, allowing them to dissolve quickly and be perceived as saltier than traditional cube-shaped salt crystals. As with smaller particle salts, this enables snack manufacturers to use less salt with minimal impact on taste perception.

“It’s a nice way to leverage what we know about salt, the different types and the way we can use it to snack manufacturers’ benefit,” Dr. Johnson said. “And the nice thing about it is that it’s all still salt, so nothing changes on your ingredient list.”

Replacing saltiness

Salt replacers can be another way to achieve sodium reduction. These can be used with salt or replace it but can sometimes require taste modulators to overcome off-notes that may be present.

“Numerous salt substitutes and taste-enhancing solutions are available in the marketplace for formulators, with potassium-based salt substitutes being the most widely used solution,” Mr. Knudson said. “Potassium-based substitutes impart a salty flavor, but some may be limited in usage level due to a bitter or metallic aftertaste.”

Masking agents can be used to block the bitter flavors, but these ingredients can be expensive or not label-friendly.

NuTek Food Science employs a patented process to eliminate bitter or metallic off-flavors in potassium chloride without using bitter blockers or flavor enhancers.

“This range of solutions allows formulators to reduce sodium and increase potassium content without compromising functionality or flavor,” Mr. Knudson said.

With these ingredients, snack manufacturers can achieve a 30% to 50% sodium reduction.

Umami ingredients like hydrolyzed vegetable proteins and yeast extracts can also be used to address the loss of flavor that occurs when removing salt from a formulation.

“Yeast extracts can be added to a lower-sodium product to make up for the lack of salt, especially when you need that boost of flavor without adding sodium,” Mr. Lane said.

These umami ingredients, however, can sometimes come with a cost or not be very label-friendly.

Sensient Flavors offers snack manufacturers a proprietary blend of ingredients called SensaSalt 2G that can lower sodium 30% to 40%.

“We have found that when used in conjunction with other sodium reduction solutions, SensaSalt 2G works as a flavor enhancer to boost positive notes while reducing negative off notes,” Mr. Lane said.

Snack manufacturers have many roads to choose from when it comes to reducing sodium in snacks. Snack companies can work with ingredient suppliers to find the right direction for their products and deliver something tasty to the consumer.

This article originally appeared SNAC International's SNAXPO Official Show Issue