Sodium is a mineral essential to human life. It’s the most abundant cation in the body and plays an important role in the maintenance of fluid balance, nerve transmission, and muscle contraction.
Many foods naturally contain sodium including milk, vegetables, meat, and eggs. Most sodium in the diet, however, comes from sodium chloride – more commonly known as salt. Sodium comprises 40% by weight of sodium chloride. Salt added during cooking and at the table provides approximately 11% of total sodium consumed by European and U.S adults, whereas restaurant and processed foods provide more than 70%. In Asian countries, the largest contributor of sodium comes from salt added during cooking and soy sauce.1,2
The case for sodium reduction
Depending on the method of assessment, Americans consume an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 mg of sodium per day, much more than the 2,300 mg limit set by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and 2,000 mg limit by the World Health Organization (WHO). The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends an even stricter limit of 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
Excess sodium intake has been linked with high blood pressure (hypertension) in some people, which is a significant risk factor for chronic diseases such as kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.3 As such, health authorities and regulatory agencies have urged people to restrict their consumption of sodium to reduce the risk of chronic disease. They have also urged food manufacturers, restaurants, and foodservice operations to reduce sodium in foods.
The challenges of reducing salt
In food processing and food production, salt serves as a flavoring agent, preservative, texture enhancer, and water binder. Consequently, food manufactures have faced extensive challenges in reducing the salt content of their food products while still maintaining the desired functional properties of their products.
But with the growing number of health-conscious consumers who aim to reduce their risk of chronic disease or manage an existing condition, food manufactures must adapt to consumers’ increasing preferences for foods low in sodium or low-sodium alternatives to their favorite products.
Salt reduction methods
Some manufactures have chosen to focus on modest, sequential salt reductions over a period of time, often without informing consumers. This strategy, known as “health by stealth,” is based on the belief that if consumers are made aware that a product has been formulated to include less salt, they will reject it based on the association between salt and flavor.4
The stealth approach, however, may not be a viable option as significant reductions in salt could compromise the safety of the product, and consumers will begin to notice the sensory change.
Conversely, some manufactures may see their reformulation efforts to reduce the salt content of their products as a way to market them as healthier.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows these nutrient claims for sodium:5
• Sodium-free: Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving
• Very low sodium: 35 mg of sodium or less per serving
• Low sodium: 140 mg of sodium or less per serving
• Reduce sodium: At least 25% less sodium than the regular product
• Light in sodium or lightly salted: At least 50% less sodium than the regular product
• No salt added: No salt added during processing
These nutrient claims are similar to those allowed under European Union (EU) regulations. While these claims are attractive marketing options, consumers may consider the overall healthfulness of the product based on the presence and amounts of other ingredients like sugar, fiber, calories, and additives in their buying decision rather than focus on a single nutrient (sodium).
When reducing salt, manufacturers must take measures to rebalance and compensate for not only the loss of flavors but potentially the loss of food quality and safety preservation.
Various novel salt substitutes exist for a variety of application categories that can serve as a partial or direct replacement to salt with comparable flavor and texture.
Novel additives such as natural acids that lower the pH of foods for improved food safety and preservation with salt reduction also exist as a way for manufactures to overcome food safety implications.
A team effort
The best reformulation strategy by food manufactures to reduce the salt content of their products remains a key challenge that requires special consideration for food safety, taste, texture, and quality.
But no matter the approach manufacturers take with sodium reduction, reformulation alone will be a futile effort without collective action by stakeholders across the food industry, policymakers, and public health authorities.
1. Harnack LJ, Cogswell ME, Shikana JM, et al. Sources of sodium in US adults from 3 geographic regions. Circulation. 2017;135 (19):1775-1783.
2. Brown IJ, Tzoulaki I, Candeias V, Elliott P. Salt intakes around the world: implications for public health. Int J Epidemiol. 2009;38 (3):791-813.
3. Strazzullo P, D’Elia L, Kandala NB, Cappuccio FP. Salt intake, stroke, and cardiovascular disease: meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMJ. 2009;339:b4567.
4. Regan A, Potvin Kent M, Raats MM, McConnon A, Wall P, Dubois L. Applying a consumer behavior lens to salt reduction initiatives. Nutrients. 2017;9 (8):901.
5. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Sodium in Your Diet. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet. Accessed August 15, 2020.
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