Most of us know the facts. Processed foods, not the shakers on our tables, are to blame for American's overconsumption of salt. While sodium is essential in our diets for basic body functions like fluid balance and muscle movement, too much of this good thing has lead to high U.S. rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke. The American Heart Association estimates 74.5 million Americans over age 20 suffer from high blood pressure—that's one in three adults.
Manufacturers decided last year to finally take some accountability for our sodium woes by signing the first ever National Salt Reduction Initiative. The New York City-led partnership of cities, states and national health organizations challenges companies to cut the sodium in their products by 25 percent over five years. As of last November, 22 had signed up including Snyders of Hanover, Premio and Hostess. Great news, right? Well . . . maybe not.
You don't have to be a marketing guru to realize that Americans may pick up a product because it boasts a low-sodium claim, but if it doesn't deliver on flavor, it won't make the shopping list next time. How can companies deliver on taste while still cutting sodium? I did a little research.
Ingredient manufacturers are pumping out salt reduction products left and right. There's the Salt Wise Sodium Reduction System from Cargill, Salt Answer Rx-Ax from Ajinomoto Food Ingredients, DM Choice Natural Salt Type from David Michael Inc., Sea Salt Replacer T#2 and Salt Substitute NTF-25 from Advanced Food Systems, the list goes on . . .
If a manufacturer uses one these ingredients, he can then add significnatly less salt--in some cases 50-percent less--and voilà, still come out with a great tasting product. Does it sound too good to be true? I mean, what's in this stuff, how does it work and should we be eating eat it? That's where things get interesting.
Most manufacturers keep information on product formulation pretty close to the vest, but I did steal away a few juicy details. While there are several products on the market to aid manufacturers in salt reduction, basically they all work in one of three ways. Manufacturers may adjust crystal size for maximum tongue surface contact; include a salt-flavor booster (such as yeast) which doesn't add sodium; or use potassium chloride which tastes a lot like salt (sodium chloride) but also doesn't add sodium. Often companies use a combination of all three techniques.
These methods may be fairly benign, but alone they don't produce a low-sodium product that tastes, acts or looks like salt. That's where other additives are needed, and that's where things get dicey. I saw ingredient decks that included things like hydrogenated soybean oil, MSG or even more ambiguous "flavorings." Could the ingredients included in these salt substitutes be worse for us than the sodium itself? And, could any of these ingredients appear in products in natural foods stores?
Here's the good news. You'll never see an ingredient deck that lists: Salt Answer Rx-Ax, Sodium Reduction System, or any of the other branded salt reduction ingredient from manufacturers. You'll see a listing of all the ingredients included in the salt reduction product as well as whatever else is in the item. Since "natural" is not a term that's regulated, you may pick up a low-sodium product in a natural foods store only to find it's packed with dubious ingredients. If you don't know what it is, the full-sodium option may be a better bet.