Can science make low-sodium foods without sacrificing flavor?

Americans eat twice as much salt as recommended, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the health risks associated with high sodium intake are widely known, many Americans won’t sacrifice taste to eat healthily. What causes these cravings and how can we limit them? Hari Sreenivasan examines a mission to revolutionize the processed food business.

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    Next: What makes food taste salty or bitter? What makes you want to eat more? Scientists are trying to digest the secrets of flavor.

    Hari Sreenivasan has this report from Minnesota.


    When people go out to eat at restaurants like this neighborhood bistro in Saint Paul, they might be mindful of how much they're eating, or how much butter is used, or possibly calories. But most don't focus on a key component of the meal that they all share in common: salt.

    The Centers for Disease Control says we eat twice as much salt as we should. Three recent studies say that too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. Health officials recommend eating less, but consumers complain about the taste.

    Enter Professor Devin Peterson, an expert in food chemistry and analysis. He has made that his mission to revolutionize the processed food business by creating low-salt products that taste good. To help with that goal, he created the Flavor Research and Education Center at the University of Minnesota.

    DEVIN PETERSON, Director, Flavor Research and Education Center: We should be reducing salt in our diet about 30 percent or 40 percent.

    And if you look around there's a lot of salt-low options out there, or salt reformulations, but I suspect most people when they're opening things up at home might be dosing their own salt on them. And I guess the question would be, again, is how do we think about salt, or the product that we're consuming it with?


    Peterson took us to a grocery store to show us why salt in particular is hard to avoid.


    One of the major sources of sodium is bread and also dairy products. So if you just look at this loaf of bread here, and I was to show you the label, a slice of bread contains about 10 percent of your recommended sodium intake.

    And so you think about that, you are going to make two slices of bread, throw some cheese in there, which is also a major source of sodium, and meat and what else, and you're easily going to be at 40 or 50 percent, probably, of your recommended amount, and that's in one meal.


    Our bodies need a certain amount of salt to survive. But Peterson worries that we have been conditioned to crave much more. He's been working for three years figuring out how to create salty-tasting products with less sodium.

    His research began with that first bite. He discovered that only 10 percent to 20 percent of the total sodium in food is released in the mouth. That means people are swallowing the other 80 percent without even tasting the saltiness. Peterson wants food companies to reformulate their products.


    If I could better formulate that salt to be released during consumption, during when I actually perceive that, in this case, saltiness, that I can actually reduce salt maybe by 50 percent and still have the acceptability because I'm still getting the savor — the or savoriness, the same saltiness that I'm looking for.


    So if more salt gets released more quickly in your mouth, it keeps the taste we are used to, but allows the producers to use less sodium.

    The team has devised ways to test how the bread and sodium dissolves in your mouth and how quickly.

    Dr. Smaro Kokkinidou is the assistant director of the Flavor Research Center.

    DR. SMARO KOKKINIDOU, Flavor Research and Education Center: Actually do a time release. Let's just say 20 minutes. And then we measure the levels of sodium at each one-minute fraction to see how the concentration changes, so we can try and understand how it's released during consumption and how a consumer might perceive it.


    Through this work, Peterson has discovered a way to slow down the release of salt.


    Protein is part of what is, if you will, making salt stick to the food. And so part of our idea here is that we can take now protein and salt and sort of, if you will, interact them in a certain way that when I put them in my mouth, it's going to release at a higher rate. That means I can reduce almost salt almost by probably 40 percent, and you would never notice the difference.


    Along with the university, a consortium of 13 food producers like General Mills, Nestle, Kellogg's and Cargill fund the lab.

    Associate director Gary Reineccius says the resulting research is critical for these producers if they are to figure out how to create healthy foods that sell.

    GARY REINECCIUS, University of Minnesota: It is the food companies' business to make a profit. You know, yes, they serve their customer, but they also serve the stockholders.

    And so they can't sell things that don't sell. They — it just can't be done. So if we can give them the tools to make these foods healthy and profitable — we won't help them make it profitable, but we're trying to help them make it palatable.


    One taste preference the center is working on, why too many Americans still won't eat whole grains. The team mills, mixes, and bakes bread to find out why only 10 percent of Americans eat the recommended amount of whole grains in their diet each day, one reason, bitterness.


    Once we start to understand that, OK, these materials are the bread itself, just as you normally would bake it, has this bitterness, we then can take that apart and break it down, and look at what is actually my tongue responding to, what are the molecules that are actually listing bitterness that come from just normal bread making?


    Even the smell of whole grains comes into play. Peterson hopes unlocking the secret to why whole grains taste and smell the way they do will allow food processors to create more palatable foods.


    And that's actually a very key step in — I would say in providing the ability for food companies to move this information, to use this information that allows you to say, hey, is it coming from the flours you're buying, is it coming from when you bake or ferment again?

    And that sort of gives them information that they better — they have a better ability to then again make these products that may be less bitter, and therefore more consumed.


    The center's research is starting to expand to look at fat content: finding the secret to reducing the fat, but keeping that creamy richness of the foods we love.

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