LOS ANGELES, CA - Under increasing pressure from advocacy health groups, states, and national-level advisors, major food companies have begun "slashing" the sodium that it adds to soups, potato chips, sauces, and other products, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Last month, the FDA announced a plan to reduce salt intake in the American diet, calling for a voluntary cutback from the food industry. In addition, New York City has initiated its Salt Reduction Initiative, with 16 companies so far voluntarily agreeing to reduce sodium levels in their foods by 25% over the next five years.
Other companies have begun following their pace. Kraft announced plans in March to cut 10% of the sodium from its North American products over the next two years, and General Mills, Unilever, Sara Lee, Campbell€™s, and PepsiCo have announced similar plans.
For manufacturers, trimming salt requires more than just restraint on the saltshaker, for modifying sodium content in food revises taste and preservation characteristics. As a result, they are experimenting by subbing in other spices and researching new molecules that can replace or enhance salt€™s qualities.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that manufacturers and restaurants gradually reduce salt, with the hope that Americans€™ tastes will adapt. Campbell€™s and Kellogg€™s have already implemented such a strategy.
"There are trends now in the industry with food companies not advertising the fact that their products are less salty," said flavor chemist Harshad Patel, technical director at Kerry Ingredients and Flavors, a food technology company. "They're just reducing sodium slowly and gradually by 10% or 20%, so consumers are not put off by the perception that this product is going to be less tasty."
However, when a company removes salt from a recipe, it must find a way to preserve both taste and texture.
"It's an amazing ingredient in many ways," Patel said. "That's why we struggle with trying to replace it."
One standard replacement strategy is substituting salt with potassium chloride, which offers a salty flavor though one with a bitter, metallic edge.
Sea salt has become a trendy replacement for table salt, which contains as much as 50% less sodium.
Other replacements include lime juice, vinegar and yeast extract, all which offer a mixed variety of results.
"This is really an art and a science in how you fine-tune things," Patel said. "Most of the time, if you balance flavors, you cannot distinguish one product from another."
Other researchers are trying to understand how the tongue detects saltiness. They believe that armed with that understanding, they might be able to fool the brain into thinking that it tastes more salt than it does.
"We can't give you a timeline," says Gwen Rosenberg, a communications officer at Senomyx when speaking to the prospect of discovering a reliable salt substitute. "But we absolutely believe it's realistic."