Lower-Sodium Processed MeatIs it Possible?

November 27, 2013

12 Min Read
Lower-Sodium Processed MeatIs it Possible?

By Donna Berry, Contributing Editor

Most health and nutrition authorities believe the majority of Americans consume too much sodium. This excess, of what is actually an essential mineral to the human body, is associated with raising blood pressurea major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, the first and fourth leading causes of death, respectively, in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, believes that if manufacturers of the top-10 categories of foods responsible for 44% of peoples sodium intake were to reduce the sodium content of these foods by 25%, they could help prevent an estimated 28,000 deaths annually. With CDC having identified cold cuts and cured meats, as well as fresh and processed poultry, as two of the top-10 categories, processed-meat manufacturers are stepping up to the challenge.

This might help the U.S. health outlook, as consumers are reading ingredient labels and making choices based on sodium content. In researching health-and-wellness trends, we found that about half of consumers surveyed look at sodium levels when it comes to processed meat products," says Peter Gottsacker, president, Wixon, St. Francis, WI.

Wesley Osburn, associate professor, processed meats, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University, College Station TX, says: Manufacturers of processed meat products are working diligently to develop strategies to reduce the total sodium content due to both consumer demand and pressure from health and regulatory agencies. The problem is that sodium chloride, also known as salt, is one of the most frequently used ingredients in meat processing. It affects flavor, texture (water and fat binding) and shelf life (lowering the water activity) of meat products.

The challenge for processed-meat manufacturers is to identify innovative ingredient combinations and/or processing technologies that allow for sodium reduction or replacement with minimal or no negative impact on meat product attributes," Osburn adds.

Salt is necessary

By design, processed meats would not be processed" if salt wasnt part of the formula. Salt is one of the basic ingredients, next to the meat itself, and has a wide variety of functional roles," says Nadeen Myers, food technologist, applications research and technical support, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis, MO.

According to Osburn, the three primary functional properties of raw-meat materials are water-holding capacity, fat emulsification and protein gelation. And salt plays a critical role in ensuring these functional properties are attained for processed meat manufacturing," he says.

To increase the water-holding capacity of meat, the space between the myofibrillar proteins must be increased. Salt does this..

The addition of salt and water solubilizes myofibrillar proteins," Osburn adds. This process unfolds the protein structure, exposing both hydrophilic and hydrophobic sites to create a protein film to encapsulate the fat particles to bind fat and added water, also known as emulsification." 

And finally, protein gelation occurs when the solubilized myofibrillar proteins undergo a structural change, forming a three-dimensional gel network that immobilizes water. During the comminution phase (particle-size reduction) for the manufacture of sausage products, water binding is influenced by the addition of salt and the degree of tissue disruption and protein hydration, or swelling," Osburn says.

Ingredient strategies

Salt has proven functionality in processed meat products. And while developers have a range of ingredient solutions to help reduce salt and other sodium-containing ingredients, finding the right mix takes time and effort, according to Matthijs Bults, business development manager, Akzo Nobel Functional Chemicals B.V., The Netherlands. He explains that strategies include simply reducing sodium-containing ingredients, replacing sodium with other minerals, using different crystal forms of salt, using aromas associated with salt, enhancing flavors, masking flavors and adding new flavors.

Replacing sodium with potassium, in salt as well as other ingredients, is where most processors usually begin their sodium-reduction strategy. The most common ingredient currently used to reduce sodium in meat products is potassium chloride; however, it has limitations," says Lynn Knipe, associate professor of meat science, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. Off flavors will often develop when more than half of the sodium chloride is replaced with potassium chloride."

Indeed, traditional potassium chloride possesses an undesirable bitterness, which is why it is often combined with flavor modifiers. For example, We offer a half-and-half blend of sodium chloride and potassium chloride blended with a proprietary flavor-modification system," says Gottsacker. The flavor system offsets the astringent burning taste of potassium chloride. We have a system designed specifically for meat and poultry that has a positive impact on flavor without compromising functionality and generates up to a 50% reduction in sodium."

Sam Rao, vice president and chief innovator, Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, MN, explains his companys technique for overcoming the bitterness associated with potassium: We offer an advanced formula potassium chloride," he says. "It is produced using a patented, single-crystal technology that significantly minimizes the bitter taste associated with traditional potassium chloride, all while maintaining the taste and functionality of salt. Processed-meat manufacturers do not need to use flavor systems or maskers with this ingredient, which allows for a reduction in sodium of up to 50%."

Tate and Lyle, Decatur, IL, recently debuted a patented form of sodium chloride sourced from sea salt. It functions like salt, labels like salt and tastes like salt because it is salt, explains Andrew Hoffman, director of health and wellness innovation. Using a patent-pending, spray-drying technology, we are able to turn standard salt crystals into free-flowing, hollow salt microspheres. This product allows for a strong salt impact on the palate but significantly reduces the amount of salt required in many formulations, including processed-meat products," he says. This product cannot be added to the brine, but instead should be added to the bowl chopper along with the fat. The salt microspheres help to boost salt perception in low-sodium processed meats while keeping sodium levels in check." The microspheres do not dissolve in the fat, so if the ingredient is added with the fat into the rest, it gets distributed through the fat component and is protected from any moisture present that would dissolve it.

Indeed, salt-crystal form makes a difference. We have a process that physically alters the size and shape of a salt particle and can agglomerate multiple salts (salt, potassium chloride, sea salt, etc.) together," says Janice Johnson, salt technical services leader, Cargill, Minneapolis. As a result, the functional characteristics of the newly formed salt particles are enhanced. For example, the new salt particles generally have increased surface area, and therefore solubility, compared to granulated salts, which may impact the rate of protein extraction in meats. In addition, this form may improve distribution within the meat product, thereby avoiding pockets that could contain high amounts of potassium chloride alone, which may contribute to bitter notes."

ICL Food Specialties offers a natural, low-sodium sea salt extracted from the Dead Sea. It is composed of no more than 5% sodium chloride and can be used for up to a 50% reduction in regular salt or as a direct replacement for potassium chloride," says Myers. "It provides equivalent yields in processed meats, contributes stability to emulsions and comminuted products, promotes functional protein extraction and has a minimal impact on the flavor profile of the finished product."

In most processed meats, salt is used in conjunction with other functional ingredients, such as sodium phosphates, sodium lactate and sodium nitrite, according to Myers. These ingredients work synergistically with salt to increase moisture retention and stabilize the emulsion, as well as inhibit microbial growth and ensure product color.

In some applications, select phosphates allow the processor to reduce the amount of salt necessary to achieve the desired result for the end product," Myers says. We offer several potassium phosphates and potassium phosphate blends that can be used as direct replacement for sodium phosphates. Testing has shown these blended products perform as effectively as their sodium phosphate counterparts, sometimes even more effectively."

Yan Huang, technical service, meat, seafood and poultry, Innophos, Cranbury, NJ, says, A balanced combination of potassium and sodium phosphate can effectively reduce sodium content by 10% to 30% in the finished product without affecting sensory or safety.

We recently launched a phosphate blend designed to achieve superior binding in a variety of lower-salt meat products," says Huang. It is particularly helpful in directly lowering the salt content from 15% to 25% in chunk/formed and comminuted products."

There are many other ingredients to consider when attempting to reduce sodium in processed meat products. For example," says Knipe, sugar, or a comparable sweetener, is often used in meat products to mellow the salty taste. If salt is reduced, so should the sweetener, in order to maintain a flavor balance. To ensure sufficient moisture in meat products, which is important for yields, texture and mouthfeel, lower sodium formulations may include label-friendly, moisture-binding ingredients, such as alginates, potato starch, carrageenan, dehydrated pork stock, rice bran, as well as carrot and oat fibers."

Enhancing the umami or kokumi of a system can also improve flavor in reduced-sodium products. Umami can be enhanced through the use of glutamate salts or high-glutamate yeast extracts," says Joseph Formanek, associate director, business development and application innovation, Ajinomoto North America, Inc., Itasca, IL. "Kokumi, which is related to the richness and harmony and overall flavor impact of a food, can be enhanced through the use of special yeast extract blends and other fermentation products.

When the customer is looking to boost the salt character without enhancement of other flavors, we offer special blends that contribute low levels of the other four tastes, in addition to saltiness," continues Formanek. These ingredients are designed to trick the tongue into perceiving a higher level of sodium than is actually present. These sodium-enhancement blends are composed of precise levels of special yeast extracts, amino acids and other flavor ingredients. They are not salt replacers by themselves and do not contain salt or other typical salt replacers. They are used in conjunction with salt or salt-reducing systems."

Taku Otsuka, senior manager, technical support sales and marketing, Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., Oak Brook Terrace, IL, says: Fermented foods, such as naturally brewed soy sauce, contain just the right quantities of amino acids, and in the right proportionsglutamic acid being among the most predominantto act as natural flavor potentiators and umami contributors. Furthermore, this ingredient appears to work synergistically with salt to produce an enhancing effect that is greater than the sum of its parts." Naturally brewed soy sauces can also assist with food safety, as they contain food acids that help keep pH down without ruining the flavor balance.

For meat applications that do not work with a traditional soy-sauce flavor, we have a new ingredient that offers all the benefits of soy sauce but without the characteristic soy-sauce flavor," adds Joe Leslie, national industrial sales and marketing manager, Kikkoman. "This product is perfect for delicate or unflavored meats. It simply helps boost the taste already present in the meat without contributing any flavor. It is a great way to improve low-sodium foods while increasing the impression of salt flavor."

Texture can suffer in reduced-sodium processed-meat products. We offer transglutaminase enzyme blends that can help build back structure and texture in reduced-sodium meat products," says Formanek. Transglutaminase is a natural enzyme that crosslinks glutamine and lysine amino acids in the meat protein structure, thereby allowing binding and firmness to develop. Eating quality is improved, as is slicing and further handling characteristics in the reduced-sodium processed meat."

For many processed-meat products, an ingredient systems approach is necessary for the best final product. To replicate the taste and functionality of salt, you need a combination of some, if not all, of these ingredient strategies," says Bults. But it is challenging to blend multiple ingredients, as the more individual ingredients that are added in, the more problems that can occur.

We developed a technology that combines all the necessary ingredients for salt reduction in a specific application into a single grain, much like a grain of regular salt, but it includes the proper blend of the sodium-reduction system," says Bults. Depending on the application, this might be regular salt, potassium chloride and flavor. The technology enables us to make a direct, one-to-one replacement for regular salt. The ingredient looks, tastes, flows, blends, dissolves and cooks in exactly the same way. Theres no risk it will lump, de-mix or produce dust."

Other considerations

Knipe emphasizes that what might be more useful than manipulating ingredients is to change the processing method. For example, using pre-rigor meat can assist with improving yields, as pre-rigor meat has a much higher water-holding capacity than post-rigor meat, thus allowing for a reduction in typical sodium-containing, water-binding ingredients," says Knipe. Processors dont have to have a slaughter facility to generate pre-rigor meat, as there are slaughter companies that will sell pre-rigor meat blends.

To achieve the maximum water-holding capacity effect of tumbling, processors need to hold the product at least 18 to 24 hours while tumbling, and before cooking," continues Knipe.

Researchers at NIZO, in the framework of the Top Institute Food and Nutrition, The Netherlands, developed a strategy for salt reduction in processed meat products by maximizing the perception of available salt in the meat product. By changing the structure but not the firmness of sausages, the amount of serum that is released out of the meat matrix while chewing can be modulated. Sausages with a high serum release were perceived as juicier than those with a low serum release, and this allows for a reduction of salt of 15% or more without any impact on salty taste.

Osburn says manufacturers of processed-meat products  need to show they are working to help improve the overall health of consumers by re-evaluating their existing product lines to determine the amount of sodium that can be reduced, without sacrificing product safety and quality attributes. "Therein lies the challenge and an opportunity," he says.


Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., has been writing about product development and marketing for 13 years. She has a B.S. in food science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected].


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