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Pass the salt, but hold the sodium

August 05, 2010
  • Americans can't resist adding salt to their food (in this case, a buttered radish). So scientists are researching ways to get the same salty taste with less sodium, which can contribute to heart attacks, strokes and other health problems.
Americans can't resist adding salt to their food (in this case, a buttered… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

For those who crave the sweet taste of sugar, but not the 15 calories that come with each teaspoon,  there are plenty of alternatives -- sucralose (better known as Splenda), aspartame (Equal) and saccharine (Sweet'N Low), just to name a few.

But where are the alternatives to salt?

It's a good question. Public health experts keep telling us that we need to cut back on our sodium consumption in order to bring down the nation's blood pressure and reduce our risk for heart attacks and strokes. This spring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it would pressure the food industry to reduce the amount of salt it adds to its products and hinted that it would impose regulations if necessary. Some companies are already working to wring salt out of their products.

Getting Americans to simply follow the federal guidelines issued in 2005 and eat no more than 1 teaspoon of salt each day would save about 90,000 lives per year, researchers estimate. Instead, the average American consumes nearly 1.5 teaspoons per day.

Given our addiction to salt, you'd think food scientists would be hard at work trying to come up with more healthful alternatives. And you'd be right. A roundup of the latest research is presented in the August issue of Nature Medicine, which went online on Thursday.

It turns out there are several strategies for delivering salty flavor without the standard combination of sodium and chloride, better known as NaCl. Among them:

  • Wrapping salt particles in a special coating so that they release their flavor over time instead of all at once, like extended-release painkillers. By releasing their flavor payload slowly, scientists hope that a smaller amount of salt can go a longer way.
  • Finding a way to boost the saltiness of sodium so that less is needed. Coolants -- which are currently used in sodas and chewing gum to make the mucous membranes feel cold -- can make foods taste just as salty with 20% to 30% less salt.
  • Looking for proteins that boost the sensitivity of taste receptors on the tongue that recognize salty flavors. One biotech company says it has found 250 such proteins so far.
  • Searching for naturally salty-tasting substances that contain less sodium. One promising compound comes from seaweed, though in some recipes it produces a fishy taste. Salt substitutes made with potassium chloride do a fair job of mimicking sodium chloride, but they can taste metallic or bitter.

Unfortunately, the entire story is available only to Nature Medicine subscribers. A summary is posted here.  

-- Karen Kaplan

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