Lowered sodium restaurant meals are more than a trend. Many diners are now steering clear of salt for dietary and health reasons. And in return, restaurateurs are making low-sodium options a key part of their menu.

But reformulating restaurant meals is not usually as easy as simply cutting its salt levels, experts say. Chefs are now at work testing new recipes, trying new ingredients, and tinkering with spice levels in an effort to reduce salt levels.

Restaurants that can provide low-sodium, fresh, and flavorful options can look forward to keeping the customer satisfied. But it’s the flavorful part that can pose the challenge when it comes to cutting the salt.

“The biggest challenge with low-sodium is that people are used to foods that are overly salted and sweetened,” says Art Smith, who owns Table Fifty-Two in Chicago and Art and Soul in Washington D.C. “They’re used to eating those flavors and we can’t harass people, we’ve got to work with them and show them how good low-sodium can be.”

Smith will soon open Lyfe Kitchen in Palo Alto, California, which will focus on fresh, healthful foods. He was a fierce competitor on Top Chef Masters in 2010.

He says restaurants that emphasize food quality and fresh foods and produce will have an easier time creating flavorful low-sodium options. He also stressed that low-salt, not no-salt is the key to these foods.

“Sodium is a good thing, you have to have salt in food or it tastes like nothing,” he says. “In the past, inferior food has been over-seasoned. Most of the foods we’ve eaten have been highly processed and have featured too much salt and sugar and other additives.”

At his restaurants, most dishes contain less than 600 milligrams of sodium. Diners can salt the dishes at the table if they wish, Smith says. He achieves these salt levels by letting the flavors of the ingredients speak for themselves. He doesn’t shy away from pancetta or bacon, but includes them in dishes that contain fish and produce. That way, the smoked flavor introduces the note of salt to the dish.

Examples from Table Fifty-Two include shrimp and grits with spicy tomato stew and diver sea scallops with cornbread, bacon, mushrooms, crispy shallot, and lemon beurre blanc.

Why Now?

The move to lowered-sodium offerings comes in response to recent developments.

An April 2010 report by the Institute of Medicine said that an average sodium reduction of just 400 milligrams a day could result in a savings of

$7 billion in healthcare costs and prevent about 28,000 deaths each year.

At the same time, a more aggressive reduction of 1,200 milligrams per day—which would bring sodium consumption roughly in line with recommended levels—would save more than $20 billion in healthcare costs and prevent 81,000 deaths annually.

The food industry moved quickly in response, anticipating changes in consumer dining and dietary habits. For instance, also in April 2010, General Mills said that it planned to cut sodium levels by 20 percent across many of its product lines over the next five years. Sara Lee, ConAgra Foods, Unilever, and Kraft Foods all announced similar salt reduction targets during the past year or so.

Those moves—taken in conjunction with Americans’ continued embrace of healthful eating and as many consumers move toward a reduced-sodium diet—mean restaurants spurred the introduction of a range of low- and reduced-sodium products.

Also in 2010, The National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), spearheaded by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, calls for a gradual reduction of the amount of sodium in a range of processed and restaurant foods with the cooperation of major companies in the processed food and restaurant industries.

Slowly Does It

If sodium levels in these foods were cutback suddenly, consumers would likely reject the suddenly bland foods, according to a NSRI statement.

Instead, the group’s salt reduction targets call for reductions in salt levels—20 percent in most cases—in 62 categories of packaged and restaurant foods by 2014, with intermediate target levels to be met in 2012.

The NSRI will monitor progress by measuring the amount of salt in the food supply. It will couple that with urine analysis to gauge the amount of salt actually being consumed by the population.

The NSRI has obtained voluntary commitments from 28 manufacturers and restaurant chains and that number continues to grow.

In April of this year, Subway announced a 28 percent reduction of sodium in its Subway Fresh Fit sandwich choices. The chain also removed 15 percent of sodium across the board in its core sandwiches. The reduced-sodium offerings will eliminate 450 tons of sodium each year compared to sodium levels three years ago, according to a spokesperson there.

But Gene Detroyer, senior business development manager at marketing firm Altedys, New York, says that other restaurant chains will have a hard time following suit. Sodium adds flavor.

“A mere three-ounce McDonald's hamburger has over 500 milligrams of sodium. How much can they take out without affecting the flavor?” Detroyer asks.

Bursting with Flavor

For the non fast-food establishments, Smith recommends the addition of spices and herbs that add a lot of flavor. And vinegars.

“Acids are a great way to season foods,” he says. “And there are other alternatives too, like sugar.”

He reminds chefs that diners bring all their senses to the table. They should become conscious of the way the food smells and feels in the mouth. When all senses are satisfied, diners miss the salt much less.

“And the cooking process is an important part of this too,” he says. “Foods that are cooked longer, as they reduce, they become saltier without the addition of salt.” As  food volume reduces, the taste of the already-added salt becomes more pronounced, he adds.

The cooking team must be aware of the establishment’s low-sodium efforts; the entire restaurant staff, including the servers, must be respectful of salt, Smith says.

Kate Detweiler, nutritionist and dietitian at Menu Trinfo LLC of Fort Collins, Colorado, offers other tips to restaurateurs looking to cut the sodium within their menu offerings. Her company provides nutritional labeling to restaurant owners so they can provide nutritional information for their menu items.

She recommends the use of hot peppers, citrus zests, and spices to add flavor. Also, rinse canned vegetables, beans, and meats before using them in dishes to remove salt.

Leave condiments off dishes or keep them on the side. Condiments such as ketchup, salad dressings, sauces and mustards can contain high levels of sodium, Detweiler says.

Balance high sodium selections with sides with little or no added salt.

Many restaurants that offer low-sodium options, steam vegetables in water, poach or grill fish or meat, and rely on fresh vegetables and low-salt breads, she says.

Replace the Salt

Chefs might also consider a salt replacement.

Ten years ago, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison began working to find uses for whey permeate, a byproduct of whey processing, which can be dried and used as a food additive. A decade ago, the product was thought to taste too salty and researchers felt they needed to remove salt from products that contained the permeate, says Kimberlee Burrington, dairy ingredient applications coordinator at the center.

But with the turning of the tide toward lowered sodium levels, the center took another look at the permeate, this time as a sodium replacer. It’s had good luck using the product in muffins, scones, and pizza crusts where it’s demonstrated a 50 percent sodium reduction with good taste levels, Burrington says.

For his part, Smith, who recently lost about 100 pounds, doesn’t plan to kick the salt shaker. Pickles are one of his favorite food items, and his Chicago restaurant serves pickled okra. But he is conscious of the amount of sodium and sugar he consumes.

And he calls upon his own talent with food when preparing restaurant meals.

“What a chef does is make sure food tastes good and doesn’t need to rely on salt,” he says.

Soon, in light of low-sodium health warnings, diners will begin to adjust their pallets to less salty dining options, he says. Then, offering acceptable low-sodium options on a restaurant menu will be easier than ever. Meanwhile, the industry works toward a lower-sodium goal.

“Food manufacturers and restaurateurs are already working hard to reduce salt,” Smith says. “We’re behind the movement.”

By Jean Thilmany

Health & Nutrition, Industry News