For consumers, whether for better or worse, salt is a universally recognized ingredient. In meat and poultry processing, salt is a multifunctional ingredient and plays several critically important roles. For example, salt is an important water binder along with being necessary for product texture and mouthfeel. It also aids in bacterial suppression and is an important flavor component, among other functional benefits.

To elaborate, salt provides chloride ions, which dramatically improve the ability of meat proteins to bind and hold water during processing and cooking, says Joseph Sebranek, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in agriculture and life sciences at Iowa State University in Ames. “The result is a succulent, moist, tender product,” he explains.

Salt also solubilizes a significant amount of the meat proteins, which then can form a gel when cooked. “The gel is firm and constitutes much of the cooked product texture,” Sebranek explains. “It also traps and holds water and fat to contribute to tenderness and mouthfeel.”

Additionally, salt is an antimicrobial ingredient with the effects directly related to the amount of salt used. Thus, one of the challenges of salt reduction is potentially reduced product shelf life, Sebranek says.

Salt also contributes highly desirable flavor and helps other flavors in processed meats become more flavorful.

“In meat products, salt provides the salty taste and also increases the perception of other flavors in the meat product,” explains Gary Sullivan, assistant professor of meat processing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Adding salt to meat products improves the moisture retention and reduces cook losses resulting in a more juicy product.” 

With the addition of salt and the application of a mechanical action, such as mixing and tumbling, processors also can extract myofibrillar proteins. “The extracted proteins allow us to bind separate pieces of meat as is required in the manufacture of restructured meat products,” Sullivan says. 

Stepping up sodium reduction

As with the rest of the food industry, meat and poultry processors are actively exploring ingredient technologies to reduce sodium in their products due to consumers’ more healthful eating desires.

“There is definitely a strong trend to reducing sodium that has been ongoing for some time,” Sebranek says. “Typical concentrations are less than in the past, but there are limits to how far processors can go without loss of product quality.”      

Sullivan thinks that unlike previous attempts, current sodium reduction efforts involve slowly reducing sodium over time and not necessarily being used as a marketing strategy. Conversely, previous efforts tended to greatly reduce sodium content all at once or processors offered a “regular” and a “low-” or “reduced-sodium” version of the same product, he says. 

Some reduction of sodium can be achieved by simple reformulation, but it’s limited by minimum salt concentration required to provide sufficient extraction of proteins, Sullivan says. “When greater sodium reduction is required, addressing the different functions of salt is necessary,” he says.

One significant problem is no single perfect sodium substitute exits. “Phosphates can provide much of the water binding and protein solubilization, but are also viewed somewhat negatively by consumers looking for clean labels,” Sebranek says. “Potassium chloride can be used to provide chloride ions for water binding but have a negative flavor impact, so can only be used for 50 percent or so of the sodium chloride. Other flavoring ingredients can also be used but cannot fully replace sodium. Other antimicrobials, such as lactate, diacetate and others, also help suppress bacterial growth, but are also skeptically viewed by some consumers.

“The bottom line: salt can be reduced up to a point, which may be somewhat different for different processors, but cannot be completely eliminated, and a combination of other ingredients may need to be included to compensate for reduced salt, depending on how far a processor may be trying to go,” Sebranek says.

Many products currently are being promoted as sodium alternatives and include non-meat proteins, fruit and vegetable fiber products and reformulation technology. “All of these need to be carefully evaluated by processors for their specific products and operation to decide if the change is appropriate and retained desired product properties,” Sebranek adds.

Kantha Shelke, principal of Corvus Blue, in Chicago, agrees that reducing the amount of added sodium in meat and poultry is challenging, because sodium is a part of many ingredients that contribute functionality, flavor and safety to meat and poultry. “Sodium and potassium function similarly and the latter is often substituted for the former in meat and poultry,” she says. “KCl is used instead of NaCl to help manage moisture to reduce microbial growth and control the onset of pathogens, and potassium phosphates are often used instead of sodium phosphates for texture and moisture management.”

Several challenges exist, though, to replacing salt’s functionality. “Potassium-based alternatives have a salty flavor that is tasted slower than the sodium-based counterpart,” Shelke explains. “Potassium ingredients are also typically bitter or metallic and tend to interact with other flavors to change the overall taste of the food product.”

Sodium phosphate can work synergistically with salt to extract proteins and less salt is required to achieve sufficient protein extraction. “Although sodium phosphates contain sodium, a net reduction in sodium can be achieved with its addition due to reduction of sodium chloride in meat and poultry products,” Sullivan explains.  

A partial substitution of sodium chloride with potassium chloride can reduce sodium content in meat product, but replacement rates are limited by a bitterness from the potassium chloride.  While potassium chloride provides the most direct replacement of salt (sodium chloride), other compounds that can increase the ionic charges in the solution have been studied to provide the necessary ionic charges to extract myofibrillar proteins, Sullivan explains.  

Another challenge is that one replacement system combines sodium chloride and potassium chloride with sodium gluconate to replicate the salty flavor and functionality of salt, but it does not work with every meat and poultry application, Shelke says. Additionally, yeast extracts, by enhancing the umami flavor, are often used to reduce salt in meat and poultry products, but they also tend to add a different flavor dimension and additional cost.

A new salt replacement is permeate, minerals filtered out during the production of whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, ultra-filtered milk, milk protein concentrate or milk protein isolate. “Permeate is used to substitute for salt in meat and poultry products and is labeled as dairy product solids and, therefore, may not be allowed in Kosher products,” Shelke says.

In addition, a number of vegetable extracts can act as salt substitutes. One company has released a salt replacement made from sea salt and umami-rich vegetables such as tomato concentrate, and mushroom and seaweed extracts. It can replace not only salt, but also monosodium glutamate in some foods, Shelke says. Sea salt has been proposed as a method to reduce sodium content as it is contains minerals other than just sodium chloride, Sullivan says.

Additionally, modifying the processing schedule can be used to increase protein extraction. “Preblending is a method where a portion of the meat is mixed with salt and other functional ingredients and held overnight,” Sullivan says. “This allows temporary increase in salt concentration and with extended holding time, increases protein extraction. The preblend is then mixed with the remaining meat in the formulation and targeted salt concentration.” 

Because salt provides a salty taste and enhances the overall flavor, it may be necessary to increase spice content or add other ingredients such as organic acid salts such as potassium lactate to maintain flavor perception, Sullivan says. Retaining moisture and cook yield in reduced sodium meat and poultry products also can be achieved through the addition of sodium phosphates, starches, gums, hydrocolloids and animal- or plant-sourced proteins. In addition, maintaining shelf life can be achieved through the addition of non-sodium antimicrobial ingredients and post-packaging treatments such as high-pressure processing, improved sanitation and cold chain management.

Many of these ingredients also are more expensive than salt, and their substitution for the different functions of salt can increase the cost of manufacturing the products, Sullivan says. 

The production of reduced-sodium, natural or clean-label products also is a challenge to processors as some of the sodium reduction solutions are not available. “Some of the most useful solutions are removed from the processors’ meat processing tool box,” Sullivan says. For example, sodium phosphates are often avoided in these products and are the hardest to replicate in natural or clean-label products.

Shelke also believes the biggest issue with salt replacement is food safety. “It is really important that processors test their products and ensure that the salt replacement not only replaces the taste and texture functionality but also its safety aspect,” she says.

Reducing sodium moving forward

Sullivan thinks the current trend to reduce sodium content in food slowly will continue. “Using this approach allows for the consumers’ taste preferences to adapt to the reformulated products,” he says. “Unlike previous efforts to reduce sodium, this time it seems to be a more concerted effort and more widely embraced throughout the food industry.”

Sebranek also feels the industry’s current approach of a very gradual reduction of sodium content over time to allow consumers to acclimate to subtle changes, such as flavor, will continue to grow.

“The preferred taste that we all have for salt is an acquired taste based on how much we habitually consume,” he says. “It’s been made clear that we can be weaned to lower salt concentrations if the change is made slowly. But, keep in mind that there are still practical limits in meat products due to the multiple functions of salt.”

Shelke expects to see new ways of cooking that enhance taste and texture of meat and poultry such that salt is not needed in the amounts used currently. Additionally, new ways of preparation, with spices, herbs and different ingredients, allow for the development of flavor such that the reliance on salt is reduced significantly without a discernible sacrifice in taste, texture or other functionalities that matter to the processor.

In addition, awareness of a range of flavoring ingredients such as fungi, algae, peppers, and spices and herbs, which can not only replace salt but also contribute to the taste and health benefits of foods, is growing. Because of this, meat and poultry products will not just be lower in sodium but also appeal to those seeking clean-label and honestly healthful foods, Shelke says. NP