Menu Innovations | December 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Salt Shakers

Restaurants are working to cut back sodium without spooking customers.

Salt is one of the world’s oldest seasonings. But pervasive use of the mineral has put it in the crosshairs of modern-day health professionals.

Few people are suggesting that salt—consisting mostly of sodium chloride—be treated like a latter-day trans fat and be banned from restaurants in cities across America. Instead, many eateries are heeding a national initiative to reduce the salt in their menu items.

“A lot of restaurant operators are looking at ways to reduce sodium, on their own or working with suppliers,” says Joan McGlockton, vice president of food policy for the National Restaurant Association (nra). “The industry is challenged on how to do this.”

That’s because it’s not easy to mimic the exact taste and texture of salt, experts say.

“There is not a single ingredient known by man that can simulate salt exactly,” says Mariano Gascon, vice president of research and development for flavor-development company Wixon Inc. “It has its own flavor and enhances other flavors.”

Nonetheless, technological advances have come up with various salt substitutes, and chefs are using herbs, spices, citrus, and other methods to replace salt.

In many ways, cutting back on salt can be a Catch 22. Consumers want less sodium in their diets, but they also believe that food low in salt tastes bland, so they won’t buy it. As a result, some restaurants are reducing their sodium without talking much about it.

Salt has been used as a spice and preservative for millennia. It’s mentioned in the Bible and by the ancient story teller Homer, and demand for the mineral led to early trade routes. The phrase “worth his salt” refers to a person’s work value, because the spice was so pricey at one time.

Despite its benefits and long history, ingesting too much sodium isn’t good, doctors say. And with the increased reliance on processed food, which uses salt as a flavor enhancer and preservative, many Americans unknowingly eat more sodium every day.

Studies indicate that 70 percent of the nation’s sodium consumption is from processed food, including meat, cheese, and bread products.

The biggest health concern of sodium intake is hypertension, or high blood pressure.

“Salt retains water,” says Dr. Wallace Johnson, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Think of a garden hose with a lot of water pushing against the walls. That’s what’s happening to the blood vessels.”

Complications range from heart attacks and strokes to kidney disease.

The federal government’s latest dietary guidelines call for the daily sodium intake for healthy Americans to be no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg). The American Heart Association and many physicians put the limit at 1,500 mg a day.

But concerns among health professionals are overwrought, says Martin Satin, vice president of science and research for the Salt Institute, representing North American salt producers.

“The evidence for salt reduction is not there,” he says, contending that the push for sodium limits is being driven by ideologues who want limits on salt used by restaurants and processors. There are better ways to cut hypertension, he says, including exercise.

Even so, the restaurant industry seems committed to offering lower-sodium options.

“We support the dietary guidelines, and we want to help consumers meet them,” the NRA’s McGlockton says. “We’re not in favor of any sort of mandate or compulsory requirements, but the industry is sensitive to what diners want.”

One NRA effort is HealthyDiningFinder.com, which helps Americans identify healthier choices when eating out. Developed with partial funding by the Centers for Disease Control, the site lists “sodium savvy” menu items with less than 750 mg of sodium.

Typical dishes are the Joey Junior chicken burrito from Moe’s Southwest Grill, RedBrick Pizza’s Pizza Bianco, and Corner Bakery’s Corner Combo of tuna salad on harvest bread and a mixed greens side salad.

Despite sodium reduction initiatives, salt mentions on restaurant menus increased by nearly 150 percent over the past five years, according to MenuMonitor, a service developed by Chicago-based Technomic Inc.

These mentions don’t mean, however, that more salt is being used, says Technomic Inc. executive vice president Darren Tristano. Instead, it’s often a marketing effort, highlighting artisan or blended salts.

“You are building the perception of flavor at the description level,” Tristano says. Typical, he notes, is Wendy’s natural cut fries with sea salt.

The easiest way to reduce sodium in the menu, chefs say, is to simply curtail salt.

“If you cut salt by 20 percent, you will be challenged to find any difference in flavor,” says Ron DeSantis, director of CIA Consulting, an affiliate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

At a recent presentation, he cooked some green beans traditionally and others with 20 percent less salt in the water. “No one knew the difference.”

There are other ways to reduce sodium in food, such as having great ingredients and properly executing the cooking fundamentals, DeSantis says. Fresh or dry herbs, wine, juices, and vinegar can enhance flavor, with salt added only “to spark the flavor.”

Another method for reducing sodium is flavor enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate, which may come with its own health concerns. Among newer products is Wixon’s KCLean, which provides the taste and texture of salt but with less sodium.

“There are several salt-replacement options for the industry, and the closest now is potassium chloride,” Gascon says.

“It’s similar to salt, but not as salty and leaves a bitter, metallic aftertaste.”

Wixon uses taste modifiers with potassium chloride to mask the bitterness and improve the flavor. So KCLean is 50 percent salt and 50 percent of the altered potassium chloride.

Moe’s Southwest Grill began using KCLean and other methods to reduce sodium levels across its menu more than a year ago.

“We worked with all of our suppliers to get the salt levels lower,” says Dan Barash, the executive chef of Moe’s who led the company’s sodium-cutting effort. “We looked at every ingredient and were able to reduce sodium by 50 percent.”