In addition to taste, it also plays a range of other roles in terms of texture, preservation and more that cause reformulation efforts surrounding its removal to be exceptionally challenging.
Despite this, the prime difficulty manufacturers face when trying to reformulate products from sauces to chips still remains the issue of getting the taste right, and this challenge is compounded in the South East Asian region where taste is the top priority.
“In ASEAN we are definitely seeing a lot of interest in sodium reduction but have also noticed that this is mostly pushed by governments and the industry, not so much consumers – this is because taste is still the main priority for them,” Corbion APAC Business Development Senior Director Edwin Bontenbal told FoodNavigator-Asia at the recent Fi Asia Thailand 2022 event in Bangkok.
“It is not that consumers don’t know about sodium reduction – they tend to be aware of lower sodium benefits but do not want to compromise on taste.
“Sodium plays many different functionalities in food, for enhancing taste, texture (e.g. in bread and noodles), preservation in things like sauces and meat and so on - so reducing this means also affecting all these diff parameters.
“What we have found is that at the end of the day, everything that we need to do in terms of delivering the desired preservation and texture is all possible - but getting the taste right is the major challenge, especially with many Asian consumers having high expectations to have no change in flavour or cost without using salt.”
The taste factor is also seen as the major hurdle preventing sodium-reduced products from moving into mainstream foods in a big way.
“At the moment it is clear that sodium reduction in Asia is still mostly reserved for more premium products – food firms rend to make additional products with low sodium to put on the market, [usually at] higher prices,” said Bontenbal.
“But the thing is that in order to make an impact, it is important that this be implemented into products that are eaten a lot by people on a regular basis – premium items tend to be eaten by just 3% of the population, so the advantages and the impacts are low.
“That is why the focus for this area needs to be on products that are very mainstream such as soy sauce, bread, instant noodles, meat and so on to make an impact – and I do see that moving forward, this is happening slowly here.”
Closely related to the issue of sodium reduction is natural preservation, to remove the use of chemical preservatives in foods and beverages, and according to Bontenbal certain markets in Asia are more welcoming of this than others.
“I would say that markets like Thailand are very interested in going natural when it comes to preservation, but in places like Indonesia the interest is lower,” he said.
“So in Asia we do see that the differences are quite large based on consumer needs, and in certain countries the demand justifies higher cost and time for development whereas in other countries this is not the case.
“It is not easy to move from chemical to natural preservation because [although] natural options can function well, they do have a narrower spectrum than chemical preservatives and do not act in a broad based on all microbes, so there tends to be a need to combine several natural options to have same effect as chemical ones.
“This will drive up the cost, although it must be stressed that this is still a very minimal impact on the overall cost of a product.”
In this area, sauces again take the spotlight as this is a category where a large amount of salt is used in production.
“There are a lot of sauces in Asia with high salt levels such as soy sauce and fish sauce – many firms are looking to not only lower their salt levels, but also go from chemical to natural,” he said.
“In this case, the lowering of salt tends to lead to preservation becoming a problem, so any replacement used for salt needs to be customised to adapt for factors such as flavour profile and pH to at least maintain the functionality and shelf-life.
“There is no lottery ticket or silver bullet here – research and customisation is the way to find these solutions and getting to mainstream prices and products, but I do believe that in the next five to 10 years as healthy and natural awareness increases, the importance of both sodium reduction and natural preservation will also grow immensely.”