Stealth Mission: Lowering Sodium in Baked Goods

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By Kimberly J. Decker, Contributing Editor

Of all the headlines to come out of USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the most-attention-grabbing may be the recommendation that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Set against our current consumption of generally over 3,400 mg, that’s a major adjustment. Yet, given the common knowledge—within industry and among the public—that our main sodium source isn’t the salt shaker but the packaged foods we’ve come to love, the burden has thus fallen to manufacturers to ease our march into a new era of sodium austerity.

Manufacturers have come through with reductions in notoriously high-sodium categories like meats, soups, sauces and snacks. Bakery, meanwhile, hasn’t exercised the same low-sodium passions. “Baked goods represent a great challenge to sodium reduction," says Barbara Heidolph, principal, marketing technical service, ICL Performance Products, St. Louis, because of the range of baked goods and the functional roles that sodium plays.

Salt of the hearth

Grain-based products account for 36.9% of daily sodium intake, according to Heidolph. Both the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and the April 2010 Institute of Medicine report, “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States," identify yeast breads as the largest single food contributor to daily sodium intake, accounting for 7.2% of the total.

“It is not necessarily the level of sodium per serving that causes this," Heidolph points out, “but instead the number of servings consumed per day, as most breads are in the range of 100 to 200 mg of sodium per serving." Pizza crusts, tortillas and flatbreads clock in at a similar 100 to 400 mg per serving, and sweet baked goods at about 100 to 350 mg.

In yeast-leavened breads, whose one-and-only sodium source is often sodium chloride, salt behaves so functionally—from the moment you start mixing the dough to the time product spends sitting on the shelf—that lowering its levels inevitably creates complications.

Salt forges molecular bonds with flour proteins, improving dough strength, encouraging gas retention, and yielding impressive finished volume and palatable crumb structure. “Due to its hydroscopic properties, salt makes the dough easier to handle, too," says Mariano Gascon, vice president, research and development, Wixon, Inc., St. Francis, WI,. Salt suppresses yeast activity, slowing fermentation and giving bakers more control over makeup. And salt’s ability to strengthen dough without compromising extensibility improves machinability.

Even in the oven, salt “fixes the humidity in the dough," Gascon continues, maintaining surface moistness and producing a thin, crisp, well-colored crust. In dry climes, salt retains moisture to ward off staling.

Further, Heidolph notes, salt inhibits microbial growth, which “is important for breads to some extent, especially when you consider distribution channels and the time bread often spends in the home kitchen."

But perhaps most noticeably, salt makes baked goods taste good. “Salt provides flavor enhancement in baked products," says Linda Kragt, technical services manager, Morton Salt, Chicago. “Breads without salt are often described as ‘flat’ or ‘insipid.’ In whole-grain products, salt can help mask bitterness. In sweet baked goods, salt helps modify an overly sweet taste. Additionally, salt imparts flavor balance to these products."

Chemical dependence

In chemically leavened baked goods, salt is also a primary source, accounting for anywhere from 30% to 80% of the total. “In chemically leavened baked goods, such as cake products, muffins and pancakes, salt is highly functional," says John Brodie, technical services, baking, Innophos, Inc., Cranbury, NJ. “Not only does it enhance flavor, but it balances out the sweetness of the product."

Aside from salt, chemically leavened baked goods contain other sodium sources, including leaveners and leavening acids whose names—sodium bicarbonate, sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP), sodium aluminum phosphate (SALP), sodium aluminum sulfate (SAS)—say it all. The preservatives sodium propionate, sodium diacetate and sodium benzoate may also contribute sodium, as do reducing agents like sodium metabisulfate, the emulsifier sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate and dough conditioners like sodium caseinate. Individually, these ingredients contribute small amounts of sodium; collectively, they can account for half the total.

In chemically leavened goods, “sodium bicarbonate is the primary source of carbon dioxide gas," which gives volume and texture, Heidolph says. Leavening acids neutralize that sodium bicarbonate, controlling the rate of carbon-dioxide generation and timing of release. “The leavening acids are not generally the largest sodium sources," she notes, but “the reduction in sodium can be as much as 25% just by changing the leavening acid."

First things first

Manufacturers have pulled many rabbits out of their hats to perform sodium-reduction tricks, and the results are appearing on shelves. “The bakery products category has shown an increase in the number of products making sodium-related claims over the last five years," notes Beth Arndt, director of research and development for the ConAgra Foods family, Omaha, NE, which includes Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings. This includes bread and bread products, sweet biscuits and cookies, savory biscuits and crackers, and baking ingredients and mixes. The cakes, pastries and sweet goods subcategory is the only baked goods subcategory that did not show a steady increase in products making sodium-related claims."

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