Science isn’t just for the lab; It has a place in the kitchen as well. Food-tech, the nexus of food and technology, is making headlines for new ways to plant and develop agriculture; new ways to order and deliver food; and even the creation of brand-new foods (like lab grown meat). These are just a handful of the ways that the high-tech community contributes to feeding the world. In addition to improving the quantity of food, food tech researchers are working on delivering higher quality and healthier meals.
A big issue in the food industry that science and technology are beginning to tackle is that the foods eaten in restaurants often have a lot of salt. What we refer to as “table salt” is a mineral made up of sodium and chloride, and it’s the sodium that our taste buds specifically crave. Unfortunately, too much sodium can cause high-blood-pressure and other health conditions. It’s not so easy to prepare great tasting, low-sodium food but food tech companies, researchers, and innovators have some unconventional ideas as to how to make low-sodium foods taste delicious.
Why This is Important
It’s important for restaurant owners and those in the food business to stay abreast of these technological developments. That’s because government agencies are working on legislation that would require food producers to limit their sodium output. For example, in New York City, restaurants now need a warning icon near dishes that are high in sodium. The FDA has also been pressuring food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sodium in their products.
In 2007, the iconic Campbell Soup Company attempted to follow this advice. Campbell cut back on the amount of sodium in its canned soups. The response was not heartening. By 2011, stock-market shares had dropped by five percent and sales were plummeting. Campbell quickly brought back the sodium, but not as high as it was originally and made improvements to their low sodium line for folks on low sodium diets.
Is it actually possible to serve healthful, low-sodium dishes that keep customers happy and coming back for more? Conventional methods of sodium reduction, like adding in other flavors to mask the lack of salt, are limited in scope. Customers notice and react to the difference in taste in these low-sodium dishes.
Japanese food-tech inventor, Homei Miyashita thinks he has a solution that keeps the salt shaker off the table. In partnership with beverage maker Kirin Holdings Co., Miyashita revealed an innovative and non-traditional approach – electronic chopsticks.
Miyashita’s chopsticks rely on the “tongue to brain” pathways that let us perceive salty flavors. Sodium chloride (table salt) is an ion, which means it’s a molecule with negative and positive charges. When we eat salty foods, taste bud receptors on our tongues react to the positive-charged sodium ions.
These receptors open a channel called the ENaC (epithelial sodium channel) that lets the sodium ions enter the taste bud cells and triggers these cells to pass the salty message along to the brain. In simpler terms, when you serve your customers a cheesy pizza, what they are really craving is the positively-charged sodium ions in the cheese.
Apparently, as Miyashita uncovered, the ENaC can also be “short-circuited” with an artificial electrical current. His chopsticks contain a weak current of charged sodium ions. The chopsticks are attached to a mini wristband computer that lets the eater control them while eating. In studies, eating low-sodium food with the chopsticks enhanced the salty taste by 1.5 percent. Although they are still in prototype form, Miyashita hopes to bring his chopsticks to the wider market in the next year.
Electricity may not be the only way to “trick the tongue.” Other salt compounds, like potassium chloride, taste salty but contain no sodium. These “no-sodium salts” are commonly used as salt substitutes. The scientific logic behind the substitution is clear. Potassium chloride is also an ion with positive-charged particles similar in size to sodium chloride.
However, in contrast to standard table salt, potassium chloride has a bitter and metallic aftertaste. When it’s the only substitute for salt, it doesn’t really taste great. However, food manufacturers will mix potassium chloride with sodium chloride to create a lower-sodium, better-tasting dish. Several salt blends with potassium chloride in them are available on the market, and restaurant owners are using them to cook low-sodium dishes. These salt blends will very likely be a part of the toolbox of solutions used by those in the food industry to combat the high-sodium dilemma.
The Electronic Tongue
Creating these salt blends are exactly where food-tech companies come into play. Here’s a food-tech solution that sounds a bit strange, but has made significant headway in decreasing the amount of sodium in a salt blend — the electronic tongue. No, it’s not a robot with a remote controlled mouth. It’s really just a “smart” machine learning algorithm that’s been taught to identify sensory and chemical compounds in foods. Just like human tongues have receptors that analyze and identify tastes, electronic tongues have been taught to measure how a substance tastes by analyzing its chemical makeup. It can predict how a given substance would taste to a human.
This predictive quality helps researchers produce the optimum salt blend. Using a survey of tasters, and data from an electronic tongue, researchers experimented to see how much sodium chloride they could swap out for potassium chloride and calcium chloride (another salty substitute), without compromising on taste. Data showed the “sweet spot” was a low-sodium blend with 96.4 percent sodium chloride, 1.6 percent potassium chloride, and two percent calcium chloride. This means that consumers could enjoy food with nearly five percent less sodium in it, without having the taste impacted at all.
ATOM (Advanced Tools for Modeling)
Givaudan, a Swiss flavor and fragrance company is also leveraging the power of the algorithm to create low-sodium dishes. They’ve created a program named Advanced Tools for Modeling, or ATOM for short. ATOM is a “robot chef,” or rather a “robot-recipe-generator,” that advises on fragrance and food blends, reducing the trial and error component of food experimentation.
In 2021, ATOM helped food-tech scientists at Givaudan reduce the salt in cheese snacks by as much as 33%. The low-sodium recipe developed by ATOM was a resounding success; a blind taste test showed that consumers found the low-sodium snack as tasty as the previous recipe. Restaurant owners should keep their eyes on machine learning solutions that may be the future of healthy and tasty recipe development and food preparation.
Compacted Salt Flakes
Cargill, a low-sodium salt producer, has found another method of lowering the sodium content, this time without any substitutions. Instead, Cargill’s food scientists have hacked the shape of the salt flake itself. If you’ve ever tried using large-grained kosher salt instead of table salt to flavor your eggs, you already know that the shape of the flake makes a difference in how potent the salty taste is. Small crystals of salt dissolve faster and impart more of a flavor “bang” for your “buck.”
Cargill scientists invented an even more efficient flake. Their Alberger salt brand is made up of multi-faced, hollow, pyramid-shaped flakes. The flake adheres, blends, and dissolves better than traditional cube-shaped salt. Also, when they hit your taste buds, the flake’s rapid solubility allows for a “flavor burst” that ups the salty flavor with less salt needed. Consumer data showed that the Alberger Fine Flake Salt blend allowed consumers to use 30 percent less sodium, and still achieve the same flavor as traditional salt.
Another high-tech solution teases the possibility of salt-shaker-free flavor. This idea is the brainchild of Robert Sobel, the VP of research and innovation at FONA International, a food research and flavor company.
Sobel realized that the brain’s perception of food is complex, and is based on a number of stimulants. While our taste buds react to the foods we eat, just as importantly our eyes see mouthwateringly presented food, our noses pick up food scents, and our mouths put together a profile of the food’s texture. It seems that our perception of food is influenced by a number of sensory cues, most importantly taste and smell.
Certain olfactory cues are already associated with tastes. Some food scientists are experimenting with using smells as a substitute for taste, to see if the brain will “fill in the missing pieces.” For example, the potent “cheesy” smell that Cheetos are famous for is called butyric acid. Since the smell of butyric acid is associated with saltiness, what happens if a food smells like butyric acid, but doesn’t have the accompanying cheesy flavor? Can the scent alone, divorced from the gustatory (taste) cues, trick our brains into sensing the flavor? Sobel claims it can, and calls this method the phantom aroma method.
And he seems to be right. Sobel has been able to use the phantom aroma method to reduce sodium by as much as 10% in chips, sauces, and soups, and some food scientists are optimistic that this method has the potential to reduce sodium by as much as a third! When crafting low-sodium menu options, those in the food business should keep in mind that a little smell goes a long way.
The Final Frontier
Salty flavors remain the “final frontier” in flavor and food science, where food-tech researchers have yet to devise the perfect “one size fits all” solution to give consumers that salty flavor without the high-blood pressure price tag. But, solutions for reducing sodium are desperately needed, and scientists and food companies are stepping up to the plate with innovative technological solutions. They have made significant headway (and tongue-way) into low-sodium cooking and preservation methods. And who knows what the future of sodium holds.