The enemy within

Published in FSD Update

Sodium. It’s found in just about every item of food. We consume too much of it. And now, schools and manufacturers are tasked with reducing it in meals. But is the USDA pushing too hard too fast to cut the salt?

Baby steps

For many foodservice directors, making small, incremental changes is the best way to reduce sodium without negatively affecting participation.

“We tried to cut back on sodium so it wasn’t noticeable,” says Clare Keating, vice president of marketing for Preferred Meals, the Berkeley, Ill.-based provider of meal solutions. The company provides menu planning and meal services to districts across the country. “Every time we reformulated a meal, we tried to bring the sodium level down a little bit so it wasn’t so drastic.”

Keating says most of the company’s meals are already within the first sodium reduction. Only a few of the items, mostly tomato-based sauces, still need some work to reduce the salt.

The company has reduced salt by asking vendors for lower sodium options, simply cutting the amount of sodium in recipes or using other flavor enhancers besides salt, such as herbs.

Jon Dickl, director of school nutrition for Knox County Schools, in Knoxville, Tenn., has used many of the same tactics to reduce salt. Dickl also has a sea salt and potassium chloride blend that he uses when he can’t achieve the same palatability with herbs only. Dickl’s menus are within 60 milligrams of meeting the first sodium reduction.

Cincinnati’s Shelly developed flavor stations in cooperation with McCormick and Cambro. Flavor stations are caddies that hang off salad bars that hold shakers of a Mexican spice, an Italian spice, crushed red pepper flakes and garlic pepper—all sodium-free flavor enhancers. “If I’m giving a kid an entrée that has [less] sodium, he can go and flavor it up so that it’s not so distinctly noticeable,” she says.

Shelly also worked with JTM Food Group to create a burger with mushrooms, which lowered the sodium content by half.

Some districts had to remove items, however. Cheese seems to be one of those foods that increasingly is falling into this category. Lynnelle Grumbles, R.D., director of nutritional services for Visalia Unified School District, in California, has taken some cheese products off the menu.

Philadelphia has also removed items that are cheese stuffed, like mozzarella sticks. Other items directors are reducing or eliminating because of high sodium content include lunch meats and bread items.

Dickl’s No. 1 breakfast item was a biscuit. He’s hoping to find a lower sodium, good-tasting version, but until he can do so he’s menuing an alternative option, like a croissant. “If I’m going to get students complaining about the biscuit [because it’s lower in sodium and doesn’t taste as good] then I’m going to cut it from three days to one,” he says.

The other half of the equation

Dickl’s search for a better low-sodium biscuit highlights one of the main challenges—and opportunities—for the industry. Schools purchase premade products from manufacturers, which must now reduce the amount of sodium in their items or lose money in the school foodservice business.

Many companies, like the districts, saw sodium reduction coming and began working years ago to cut it. Schwan’s Food Service has been working to reduce sodium since 2006, according to Karen Wilder, R.D., senior director of scientific and regulatory affairs. Wilder says that by the time the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was released, the company had already reduced the sodium in its products by 20 percent.

Wilder estimated that 10 percent of Schwan’s products had to be tweaked to comply with the first reduction. The focus for sodium reduction has been on breakfast. “Breakfast items are a little more challenging simply because you’re talking about usually a combination of a protein and a bread item,” she says. “Bread is one of the major contributors to sodium in the American diet.”

Schwan’s first step in cutting the salt was working with ingredient suppliers—meat and cheese purveyors—to see what kind of lower sodium products they could supply.

“Are salt substitutes in some of those items? There may be some but one of the challenges that we have is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all replacement for salt,” Wilder says. “What we end up doing first is just reducing the amount of salt in products but maybe boosting the flavor. So some of our pizza sauces have more of a spice profile and that helps to [hide] the fact that we reduced the salt. We still have to deal with the leavening agents, because the dough isn’t going to rise without some kind of leavening agent, which has salt.”

Like Schwan’s, Kikkoman has developed lower-sodium products for schools. “Sodium reduction isn’t just a matter of using less salt. It’s all about using the right combinations of ingredients so kids don’t miss the flavor of salt,” says Debbie Carpenter, senior manager, national foodservice sales & marketing, Kikkoman Sales USA Inc.

Kikkoman has worked with Ann Cooper, chef and director at Boulder Valley School District, in Colorado, to create “a variety of low-sodium, kid-pleasing menu ideas in a variety of cuisines.”