There’s no denying manufacturers and consumers alike have an affinity for salt and its ability to make foods more crave-able. According to the 2022 Food & Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, 73% of adults said they snacked at least once a day, and of those, 40% said a salty treat was what they coveted. On the product side, food manufacturers appreciate it as an affordable way to improve flavor while preserving shelf life.
Unfortunately, salt doesn’t love us back. On average, Americans consume in excess of 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, significantly above the recommended 2,300 mg.
While those delicious salty snacks are part of the problem, sodium also lurks in unanticipated spots, from canned goods to sandwiches to plant-based meat. Despite the category’s health halo, sodium is the top concern among those who consume plant-based meat alternatives, finds research from Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition and Edelman Data and Intelligence. Roughly one in three consumers say they are concerned about high sodium in plant-based meat.
Of course, those brands use excess salt for the same reason any food manufacturer does, noted Sarah Corwin, PhD, RD, senior principal scientist, plant-based and ingredient innovation for Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition. “Salt makes things taste good, and if a product doesn’t taste like you’re expecting, which is common among alternative proteins, adding salt can help.”
Yet across the board, consumers are focusing on their diets, with 82% of U.S. adults saying healthy eating is important to them and more than one-quarter expressing interest in decreasing their sodium intake specifically.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized the issue, calling for food manufacturers and restaurants to reduce the salt in their products as they aim to help cut Americans’ sodium intake by approximately 12%. This initiative is based on excess sodium intake being linked to negative health outcomes such as hypertension, heart disease and stroke. Here are three ways food manufacturers can shake the salt habit.
1. Adjust serving sizes
Many consumers rely on the nutrition label to determine how a specific product fits into an overall healthful diet. That can leave many manufacturers tempted to reduce the serving size to make the nutrition facts, including sodium content, more palatable.
While that can be a savvy strategy when you’re aiming to emphasize how your food is meant to be consumed in smaller quantities, artificially decreasing the serving size can create mistrust with consumers. After all, they know what’s legitimate and don’t appreciate the deception of using math to try to make a product appear more healthful than it is.
Also remember that the FDA states that “by law, sizes must be based on the amount of food people typically consume, rather than how much they should consume.” It’s important not to scoff this regulation by creating unreasonable serving sizes in an attempt to embellish your nutritional content.
2. Reduce and/or replace salt with alternative ingredients.
While relying on salt is the easy answer for creating delicious products, you can achieve the flavor profile you seek without resorting to extra sodium, if you have the right tools.
One top candidate is monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG. Unfortunately, many food manufacturers hesitate to use MSG, based on a false narrative that surrounds it. That’s both shortsighted and xenophobic, Corwin said.
“The common misconceptions about MSG are factually untrue, based on faulty scientific reporting that is rooted in prejudice,” Corwin said. She added, “As consumers are increasingly inclined to listen to scientific evidence, I anticipate positive changes in perception.” In fact, even now, Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition research finds that consumers’ intent to purchase is the same after viewing one label showing a product contains MSG and another label for the same product without it. “While there is still a massive misperception in the industry, we find those concerns don’t trickle down to consumers.”
MSG can play an important role because it provides saltiness and umami anywhere manufacturers need it, from soups to baked goods, but with lower sodium content than salt alone. “There’s a lot of really great places MSG can play and we believe manufacturers will continue to realize its benefits,” Corwin said.
3. Modify flavors so they require less sodium.
Yet another way to achieve lower sodium is through deploying products that block bitter tastes so less sodium is required to mask those flavors.
You can’t completely eliminate salt content in most foods, Corwin said. “We need some salt in foods, but it can be very low when replaced by other flavors and ingredients that have properties which will ultimately lead to the perception that the item is saltier than it actually is,” she explained.
Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition has a number of ingredients in its portfolio that can help reduce sodium, while also enhancing other flavors. Corwin cited Ajinomoto's line of Savorboost™ yeast and yeast extract products, ingredients which offer versatile ingredients that may deliver umami, kokumi or a combination. As she explained, kokumi isn’t a “taste,” per se, but rather a multifaceted sensory phenomenon embodying the richness and complexity of meat’s mouthfeel, a quality often lacking in plant-based alternatives.
“With kokumi, we can bring together the notes of the different flavors you’re combining. It’s something I really appreciate about those related ingredients in our portfolio.”
And experimentation continues at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition, she added. “We’re finalizing and getting ready to launch a line of sodium-reduction technologies that will further diversify our portfolio and offer customers more options.”
Use a pinch less without sacrificing taste
Product manufacturers continually grapple with developing products that meet consumers’ discriminating palates, while also delivering the nutritional benefits they demand. By using fresh strategies, brands can manage sodium content while retaining the full flavor consumers expect.
Find out more about how the Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition team can help spark inspiration and innovation for food manufacturers aiming to make more flavorful, full-textured alternative protein products, or explore other ingredient solutions for meat and poultry, baked goods, savory snacks, soups and broths and more.