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.”

Through it all, “we never jeopardized flavor to create a healthy product.”

The company has at least a dozen sodium-savvy items. The Joey Jr. burrito is a flour torilla with chicken, black beans, rice, cheese, and pico de gallo. It has 714 mg of sodium. The Funk Meister taco features a soft flour tortilla, chicken, cheese, pico de gallo, and shredded lettuce, and it checks in at 630 mg sodium.

Moe’s is not through, however; it’s looking to cut sodium even further from items such as ground beef and queso.

All of this was done quite quietly, and customers didn’t notice.

“There was zero fanfare,” says Stan Dorsey, vice president of research and development for Moe’s parent, FOCUS Brands. “It was the right thing to do.”

But Dorsey also knows that health claims can backfire. “There’s always a danger. When I was with a previous company we ran a special item and it did really well. Six months later we ran it again, saying it had no carbs, and the product died.”

To many marketers, salt reduction could do the same. So, not surprisingly, Taco Bell waited several months to mention it had secretly cut the sodium content in its menu items at Dallas-area restaurants by 23 percent.

Other companies are quietly plugging away at sodium reduction. Burger King, for instance, reduced sodium by a third in its most popular kids’ meal item, Chicken Tenders. It lowered sodium in several adult menu ingredients, too.

And no salt is added to Burger King’s best-known item, burgers, says spokeswoman Denise Wilson. A four-ounce ground beef patty naturally has less than 100 mg of sodium.

Burger King and many other operators offer small hamburgers, like the Whopper Jr., with sodium counts in the 500–650 mg range. However, regular burgers usually have considerably higher sodium levels, well in excess of 750 mg.

A number of companies have no qualms about their low sodium levels.

RedBrick Pizza, for instance, has been health conscious “from Day 1,” says president Jim Minidis. “When we started, we formulated our items to be healthier and lower in salt than any others out there.”

RedBrick uses fresh herbs, spices, and olive oil rather than salt, in some cases.

“It took quite a bit of time and development to come up with these recipes, but we were determined to make a great, healthy product,” he says.

Many typical pizza ingredients can be heavy in sodium: the crust, canned sauce, meat, and cheese. RedBrick’s sauce has 12 herbs and is organic, without preservatives. There’s no salt or salted butter in the dough, which is baked in a wood-fired oven.

Last year, the company introduced a whole-wheat, multigrain artisan crust made with açai berry, a fruit known for its antioxidant properties.

Meat toppings have been more of a challenge, because even organic meats can be high in sodium. So the company has had to search harder to find what it wants, such as a high-quality, Italian-imported prosciutto, which doesn’t need salt to pump up the taste.

The 9-inch Pizza Bianco with açai crust (660 mg of sodium) features Ricotta and Mozzarella cheese, sausage, mushrooms, roasted pine nuts, olive oil, and garlic sauce. Several Fhazani flatbread sandwiches have sodium counts less than 450 mg.

Meanwhile, Subway, also known for its health-conscious menu, announced this spring it cut the sodium by 15 percent in core sandwiches and 27 percent in its Fresh Fit sandwiches.

“We started working on our sodium reduction before it was in the forefront of industry interest,” says Lanette Kovachi, the company’s corporate dietician.

“It was something we wanted to do to be socially responsible and provide a healthier product for our customers.”

Cutting sodium “was definitely challenging,” Kovachi says.

“We looked at all of our components, breads, meats, and cheeses, and all of these by nature, especially the deli meats, are higher in sodium for flavor and for food safety reasons.”

Company chefs and food developers could only go so far with some ingredients, but sodium in bread (salt keeps bread from rising too quickly) was reduced 25 percent.

“The bread helps make Subway, the smell when you walk in, and the taste,” she says. “You don’t want the customer to notice you did anything to that.”

Several 6-inch subs priced less than $5, including the oven-roasted chicken and the roast beef menu items, are less than 700 mg of sodium.

Most of Subway’s salt-reduction focus has been on meats and breads, so there is still a “to-do list” for sodium reduction.

“We started where we could get the biggest bang for the buck, and now we are looking into sauces and other ingredients that are not as large to the overall sodium count,” Kovachi says. “We know customers expect us to keep getting better.”

Fries are also an area of concern for quick-serve brands looking to reduce sodium while maintaining bold tastes.

Statistics from Technomic found that Americans by more than a 2-to-1 ratio prefer their fries to be seasoned with pepper, Cajun spices, or other flavorings.

“It seems customers are willing to go out of their way for the fries they want,” says Kelly Weikel, consumer research manager at Technomic. And that’s important, since fries “are still the go-to side item” at most quick-service restaurants.

The nation’s biggest burger chains offer traditional french fries, while a number of other quick-service operations, including Checkers/Rally’s, Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, serve up seasoned varieties.

One of Arby’s long-time signature items is curly fries, a spiral-cut fry coated with a secret combination of salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and other savory seasonings.

“Youngsters find them really fun, and older adult eaters recognize us for having a very flavorful product that is unique in the quick-serve segment,” says Brian Kolodziej, vice president of product development and integration for Atlanta-based Arby’s.

The coating of seasonings not only provides a different taste, but it also helps keep the fries crisp and provides their color.

Wendy’s hoped to capitalize on the consumer’s love of french fries and increased interest in healthy eating when it debuted its fries made with sea salt in November 2010.

The fries are made from 100 percent Russet potatoes and sliced “natural style” with the skin on and fried in proprietary oil that’s trans fat free. Then they are dusted with natural sea salt.

According to company research, the new fries, which use less salt, were preferred over competitors’ fries by 56 percent of the public.

“We’ve listened intently to our customers and incorporated their feedback into our products,” says Ken Calwell, Wendy’s chief marketing officer. “The results from the taste test validate our efforts to deliver what our customers want—better tasting fries. And our fries are hot with a golden color and a real potato taste seasoned with sea salt.”