Many have taken the conclusions of the recent Cochrane review, “Reduced Dietary Salt for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Control Trials,” to mean that reducing sodium was completely without merit, period. And some manufacturers, most notably Campbell’s, have already moved to put the salt back in their products.
And yet the calls for sodium restriction, from consumers as well as consumer health organizations like the American Heart Association, are as strong as ever. Food and beverage processors are in a tricky position of attempting to meet a customer demand that is both strong because of admonishments to do so and reluctant because people really don’t want to reduce salt intake, at least in practice.
As Adam M. Bernstein and Walter C. Willett disclosed in their review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in the fall of 2010, the huge publicity push to lower sodium accomplished precious little. Sodium intake hardly changed between 1957 and 2003. (Conspicuous in its absence was the question, “If sodium intake has been static, and hypertension has increased, what has really caused that increase?”)
One might assume that if the salt is not in the food, it will be added at the table. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that in mid-July of 2011 Campbell’s announced that it was putting the salt back into many of its soups in response to consumer demands for better taste. The company retains its line of Healthy Request soups and V-8 drinks that meet the American Heart Association’s standards for sodium content (among other criteria that earn foods the heart-healthy symbol).
So what’s a manufacturer to do when consumers demand a full-salt flavor while simultaneously seeking out products with reduced sodium?
Reduce it, but switch the type of salt
Campbell’s already had done an excellent job of covering both sides of the controversy. It added sea salt to select items as part of the reformulation for a modest reduction of salt. Sea salt has a slightly more intense flavor than commercial table salt. (Technically, mined salt is also sea salt. It comes from the deeply buried beds of ancient oceans.)
Unrefined (typically evaporated) sea salt, now wildly popular among professional chefs and food mavens, also contains slight amounts of a number of other minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron, lithium and others. These amount to between 1 and about 2.5 percent of the total because the legal FDA standards governing food-grade salt sets the minimum purity at 97 percent sodium chloride.
Salona, a low-sodium sea salt, can be used in food and beverage products that contain salt to significantly reduce sodium content. Developed by food scientists at ICL Performance Products, this natural mineral derived from the Dead Sea is minimally processed and provides only 1.7 grams of sodium for every 100 grams of Salona—compared with 39 grams of sodium for every 100 grams of sodium chloride salt. This allows for a 25 to 50 percent replacement of sodium chloride depending upon the application. Salona consists of complementary mineral salts that yield a balanced flavor profile to minimize off flavors often observed with salt replacers. Salona also can provide magnesium and potassium fortification.
Another approach to maximizing salt taste from less sodium is to alter the shape of the salt crystal (usually as pyramids, flakes or an ultrafine grind) to better accommodate the food and provide a different surface area for the tongue’s taste receptors. A finer crystalline shape can enhance dry salty snacks by clinging better to the food, dissolving faster in the mouth and on the tongue, and giving the taste buds the impression of a salty blast. This technique uses less actual volume of salt, but provides more bang for your buck on foods like pretzels or chips.
Add other seasonings to boost flavor
Another approach to lowering sodium is to simply add other seasonings to replace or dilute the salt, while still boosting flavor. That was the impetus behind the creation of Mrs. Dash blends, now owned by the Alberto-Culver Co. Carol Bernick, executive chairman and founder, wanted a convenient way to flavor food without salt. Combining herbs and spices in formulations that can replace at least some of the salt isn’t new, just reinvented when it comes to day-to-day living. Spices are salt extenders and have always been prized, even fought over.
The Spice Hunter Inc., San Luis Obispo, Calif., takes the search for spices seriously and is using this strategy to help consumers reduce salt. It created a new line of salt-free grilling blends to go with its already extensive line of herb and spice formulations. Different seasoning mixes are labeled for different applications, and are all-natural formulations using no MSG. They also are Kosher certified.
There’s an inherent advantage to spicing more as a way of salting less. It’s hinted at in another article from The American Journal of Hypertension (2011; 24 10) titled, “Inflammation and Hypertension: The Interplay of Interleukin-6, Dietary Sodium, and the Renin–Angiotensin System in Humans.” The article presents evidence that individuals with hypertension have a greater background of inflammation, as determined by various inflammatory markers, and that a lower-sodium diet may be associated with a reduction in inflammation. Many of our most prized and flavorful spices that can be used as salt extenders have anti-inflammatory properties and are powerful antioxidants—capsaicin, ginger, turmeric (curcumin) and many others.
Whether lowering sodium to submit to consumer demand or in an effort to help the millions of consumers in ailing health due to inactivity or obesity—and therefore at greater risk of hypertension—food makers need to get creative in making foods consumers will want to eat without adding salt at the table. Maybe some of the problem of obesity-related hypertension is not so much that Americans salt too heavily, but that they spice too little.