Why It’s So Hard for Snack Makers to Create Fake Salt
Salt is at the heart of nearly every food that has ever taken over the Internet, from burgers to bacon to chips to that super-bourgie $30 bowl of ramen you’re slurping on. Flavor aside, sodium also acts as a powerful natural preservative and helps give things like noodles and bread their satisfying texture. And the government thinks you’re getting way too much of it.
The US Food and Drug Administration has drafted guidelines aimed at coaxing food companies to use less sodium. Soda and snack companies have long faced public pressure to curb their use of dietary pariahs such as high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. But salt had managed to skate past the same scrutiny, even though Americans are still eating too much of it: about 1,000 excess milligrams every day, according to the FDA.
Researchers have linked salt overconsumption to a higher risk for heart disease—the leading cause of death in the US. The problem is that replacing or reducing the salty goodness of a bag of potato chips isn’t nearly as easy as subbing out some sugar for stevia.
“The technology is very different for boosting sweetness than for boosting saltiness,” says Justin Shimek, CEO of Mattson, which works with food companies to develop new products. At the heart of the problem: the seductive flavor of salt comes from sodium itself.
Knowing this, food companies have spent years hammering away at the problem of lowering sodium without hurting flavor. And they’ve developed a few nifty techniques, though not a true salt substitute. Big wigs like Nestlé S.A. and Mondelēz International have publicly supported the FDA’s call to voluntarily lower sodium levels, which means your favorite binge-watching junk foods are likely to get less salty over the next few years. The trick lies in making sure you don’t notice.
Of course, food makers have the culinary option: swap out salt for natural seasonings like pepper or cumin that can lend a savory kick to other ingredients. Start-up food brands like Luvo are taking this approach. But that’s not really a viable solution for big brands like Doritos or Stouffer’s lasagna. People already know what these taste like. Introduce a new flavor and you’ve altered a precious proprietary recipe.
What’s more, eliminating too much salt from a recipe can reduce the shelf life of processed foods. Without enough salt, beef jerky and bagged bagels could wind up rancid or stale before distributors can get them to you. Bigger businesses need a bigger solution.
And for now, true replacements for salt are still in the experimental phase.
“In the sugar world a lot of the artificial sweeteners are all based on replicating sugar,” Shimek says. “But with salt it’s actually the sodium ion that excites your taste buds.”
In the meantime, food companies are working to hack salt itself, altering its properties so that eaters think they’re getting more sodium than they actually are. Using smaller crystals of salt, for example, can help the sodium dissolve quicker, which creates a concentrated salty taste when sprinkled on crackers and chips, Shimek says. Food scientists at Cargill, meanwhile, have developed a line of low-sodium salt flakes under their Alberger salt brand that are basically hollow spheres of salt. Since the inside of the sphere is hollow, it can dissolve quickly and hit your tongue with a powerful salty impact without so much sodium.
“We look at everything,” says Laurie Guzzinati, a spokesperson for Mondelēz, which makes Ritz, Wheat Thins, and Saltine crackers, among other salty snacks and sweets. “From slowly reducing added salt where technically feasible to particle size to the shape of the salt crystal.”
Along with changing the shape of the salt, food producers can change the texture of food itself to make it seem saltier than it actually is. Bread that has a more porous, spongy texture with large air pockets, for example can actually fool your senses into thinking it’s saltier, says Alireza Abbaspourrad, a food chemistry and ingredient technology professor at Cornell University. In 2013, German bread researchers found that leaving bread out to rise longer in order to create larger, more course air pockets actually allowed the taste of the sodium to come through faster than in more dense breads.
The closest thing to a stevia for salt is potassium chloride. The compound mimics the flavor and behavior of sodium chloride (aka table salt) pretty well, except for its signature bitter aftertaste and hefty price tag—up to ten times as expensive as the real deal, says Abbaspourrad.
Price aside, options exist to battle the bitterness. Food companies work with large so-called flavor houses all the time to replicate specific flavors, from cooked strawberry to a warm, sun-soaked key lime. These flavors often result by combining flavor compounds that by themselves are flavorless but can block or enhance sensory perceptions of existing flavors when combined. Flavor houses are using this technique to create “bitter blockers” that mask the bitterness of potassium chloride.
Try Not to Notice
Food companies have already started using these approaches to help lower sodium levels. Mondelēz, one of the largest food companies in the world, says it has already managed to cut 1 million pounds of salt from its products in North America between 2010 and 2012. Aside from saying it will work to meet the FDA’s new voluntary guidelines, Mondelēz has also vowed to cut 10 percent of its sodium use in all of its products sold around the world by 2020, said Guzzinati.
Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, says it will cut the salt used in its noodles, soups, and other notoriously high-sodium products by 10 percent by the end of the year.
For these companies and everyone else in the processed food business, the ultimate challenge is reducing sodium without customers noticing. While potassium chloride coupled with bitter blockers is a well-known industry go-to, food scientists still haven’t figured out how to get the taste just right. And salt hacks only go so far. What’s left is hacking consumer expectations themselves. The FDA is suggesting companies take a full decade to implement their sodium reduction plans, allowing them to make changes slowly enough that taste buds have time to adjust.
The slow approach is probably a more viable fix than radically changing the flavor of a food all at once and marketing the change to consumers as a necessary sacrifice for their health. These days, customers are more concerned with too much sugar and too many unpronounceable substances in their food. Salt, meanwhile, has gone gourmet.
“Consumers have moved on from counting carbs or sodium to counting ingredients,” says Jared Koerten, a packaged foods analyst at Euromonitor. “The fewer ingredients the better.”
But as companies gradually reduce sodium content in their foods, consumer awareness may gradually rise. Most food companies today are more focused on marketing their foods as low in artificial additives, gluten, or GMO’s. Ten years from now, they could be proudly advertising lower sodium levels, too. Perception shapes taste, says Shimek, so marketers will have to make sure customers don’t perceive a move away from salt as a move toward bland, boring foods. As every parent knows, “eat it because it’s good for you” almost never works.