For a long time it was assumed that salt was a necessary additive in food processing, especially meat. In fact, the food industry resisted calls to reduce its use of salt for many years, often launching scathing attacks disputing the mounting evidence that it was bad for us. The quote above, in case you’re interested was taken from an old English folk tale, but the comparison crops up in variations all over the world. The value of salt over the age has diminished somewhat, but its value to processed foods manufacturers lingered on well after our health conscious age had begun to dismiss it.
There are numerous references in the literature to the use of salt in processed food, but meat and meat products are particularly well documented. Eoin Desmond, research manager at AllinAll Food Ingredients in
published an excellent review in the journal Meat Science in April 2006. He highlighted the challenges facing the meat industry to reduce salt while not losing the functions it serves.
The medical profession, while calling on us all to reduce our salt intake often appear unaware of the functional and sensory properties of salt added to food, or of the struggle that is ongoing to find practical effective and economical replacements.
In the meat industry, says Desmond, salt is used as a flavouring and texture enhancer; it improves hydration and the water binding capacity of meat; it improves the binding properties of proteins to improve texture; it is used to stabilise meat batters; not to mention the flavour enhancing and bacteriostatic properties for which it is so well known. As the food industry strives to decrease the fat content of foods, the perception of saltiness decreases. This is clearly a real challenge.
Shelf-life is a particularly important issue of reduced-salt meat products and one that Desmond addresses in his review. ‘Currently,’ he says, ‘there are only a limited number of salt reduced products available to the consumer at retail level, however these are increasing.’ He cites a number of salt-reduction targets to which the
and Irish food and drink industries have committed themselves.
But how will they achieve this? Potassium chloride is the most common salt substitute used and is a popular choice, given that a potassium-rich diet has been reported to have a blunting effect on sodium’s effects on blood pressure. At a replacement level of 25-40% in meat products, the flavour effect is not noticeable, says Desmond. Potassium lactate may be a possible alternative in fermented meat products and phosphates (except of course, sodium phosphate) have potential to maintain water holding capacity and thus yield in cooked meat products. Alternative processing strategies, such as using ‘pre-rigor’ meat or high pressure processing techniques may also help maintain the sensory properties without the addition of large quantities of salt.
As for flavour, Desmond cites a number of flavouring and masking agents that impart a salty taste. In any case, the number of low salt products is set to increase, but expect the ingredients list on the packet to swell too!
Desmond, E. (2006). Reducing Salt: a challenge for the meat industry. Meat Science Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 188-196.