Potassium chloride may have an important role to play in the future of the food industry. That’s because potassium chloride is a promising table salt substitute – a sodium-free salt that can be used in processed and prepared foods to help reduce sodium intake across the population.
The problem with sodium
Sodium chloride (NaCl), the chemical name for conventional table salt, is consumed in excessive amounts all over the world. Excess sodium intake is a major contributor to high blood pressure. High blood pressure, in turn, is the primary risk factor for cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death worldwide.
Although consumers add NaCl in home cooking, the majority of sodium consumption comes from processed and packaged foods. These foods rely on salt to enhance flavor and shelf stability, as well as consumer acceptance. The rise of prepared foods has resulted in a population with a high threshold for saltiness, and a distaste for low-salt foods.
Therefore, food scientists have a particular interest in finding non-sodium salt replacements. Researchers continue to investigate the use of KCl, CaCl2, and MgCl2 as alternatives to conventional table salt. Like table salt, these metallic salts can also be fortified with iodine to minimize risk of deficiency.
Salt alternatives can be combined in proportions with regular NaCl and other flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate (MSG), nucleotides, and nutritional yeast. Food scientists are looking for something that can give us the salty flavor we love, without the dangers of excess sodium consumption.
What makes KCl especially interesting
Of all the metallic salt alternatives, KCl has a special perk. That’s because it isn’t sodium levels alone that are a risk factor for high blood pressure. What’s more important is the ratio of sodium to potassium in the body. Ideally, the sodium to potassium ratio should be less than or equal to one in order minimize risk of cardiovascular disease. And this may even be true independent of total sodium intake!
Reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables, along with increased consumption of processed foods, has resulted in a population with low potassium intake and high sodium intake. Using KCl in food formulations would provide a solution to both sides of the problem.
A task for the food industry
Realistically, this is an initiative best implemented by the food industry – not the consumer. There are a few reasons for this.
First of all, when it comes to sodium intake, processed and prepared foods are far more problematic than salt added by the consumer during cooking and dining. That means that the problem needs to solved a little further up the supply chain.
Another reason is that salt substitutes are not always straight-forward. That is, you can’t just replace NaCl one-to-one with KCl and call it a day. KCl has been reported to have a metallic or bitter off-flavor at high concentrations, and needs to be mixed with NaCl or other flavor enhancers depending on the particular food. Usually, salt-replacement formulations can have up to 30% KCl before consumers start to notice something amiss.
Beyond that, KCl differs functionally from NaCl. For example, NaCl is not just there for flavor, it’s also there to preserve food and inhibit the growth of food borne pathogens. While KCl may potentially offer the same benefits (to a lesser extent), it does not have the long history of use that NaCl has in food. We would need more testing to make sure that new formulations are effective.
This is especially true for products like meat and cheese. Salt wears many hats during cheese production and meat curation, and flavor is only one of them. As these are two of the most widely consumed processed foods, they represent a huge potential for health benefits through the development of lower sodium alternatives. This is a do-able, but challenging task – definitely a job for food scientists, and not the casual cheese-lover.
Finally, there’s regulatory considerations. The unregulated substitution of KCl for NaCl could be problematic for a small portion of the population that already has dangerously high potassium levels. The implementation of KCl in the food industry would need to be accompanied by appropriate labeling.
The use of KCl in the food industry could help to minimize risk cardiovascular disease, which is currently the number one cause of death globally. KCl would not only help to reduce sodium intake, but would also increase the ratio of potassium to sodium, a key contributor to high blood pressure.
Food scientists will need to optimize food formulations to include KCl in place of NaCl, accounting for consumer acceptance and shelf stability. While there would be a start-up cost to reformulating food products, there is also a huge marketing potential for the sale of low-sodium food products. In the near future, governing bodies may further encourage the use of salt replacements in the food industry by offering government subsidies and tax incentives.
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