Harnessing umami for salt reduction

30 Aug 2018

Food companies remain under pressure to cut salt from their products, and savoury umami-rich compounds have emerged as promising flavour-boosting alternatives.

Harnessing umami for salt reduction

The ability of umami to enhance saltiness was discovered about a century ago, at the same time as glutamate was first identified in seaweed. But food companies have only started embracing umami-rich ingredients as a way to cut salt since the early 2000s, after scientists discovered the taste receptor for umami.

Traditionally, many manufacturers have used products like MSG, I+G and AYE to enhance flavour, but these have become less appealing as consumers increasingly demand more natural ingredients. In recent years, the range of umami ingredients for salt reduction has blossomed, including extracts from seaweed, yeast, tomatoes and mushrooms.

Seaweed seems like a natural choice for many companies, and recent research has suggested that its presence in foods can also make them more appealing to consumers, even in small amounts.

Israeli company Salt of the Earth is among those supplying ingredients for salt reduction based on seaweed extracts combined other umami-rich ingredients. Alongside options for salt reduction alone, its Mediterranean Umami ingredient is intended to cut both sugar and salt in sauces like ketchup, dressings, pizza and pasta sauces, chutneys and sauces for ready meals. Although these are primarily savoury applications, often they are also high in sugar – another ingredient that consumers and public health authorities would like to reduce. The company says its ingredient can cut salt by up to 45% and sugar by up to 25% at the same time.

Brazilian supplier Biorigin makes a similar claim for its yeast extracts, which it showcased at the recent IFT show in Chicago. Apart from acting to enhance saltiness – it says the ingredients can cut salt by 25-50% – the company says they could also be used to boost sweetness in some applications, or as an alternative to caramel colouring.

Meanwhile, the Dutch company Scelta Mushrooms supplies a range of mushroom extracts that can cut salt by up to 50% in a wide range of applications, including soups and sauces, seasonings for meat and snacks, and bakery products. Baked goods often present a particular challenge because salt plays an important functional role in such products, including in preservation and texture. For these applications, the company suggests combining the extract with calcium chloride, to help bakers retain some of the functional properties of salt.

Food manufacturers are paying close attention to the development of such ingredients. Many of the world’s biggest companies have announced salt reduction initiatives – but others are hesitant to publicise a low salt message even as they cut salt.

This is what makes umami-rich ingredients such a compelling prospect for food companies, because they boost flavour instead of just acting to replace salt. This dovetails with manufacturers’ desire to promote their foods as flavourful rather than ‘salt reduced’.

As long as consumers continue to look for natural foods, umami-rich ingredients will continue to hold appeal, both in reformulation and new product development.

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