In a test kitchen in the basement of an Old Mill office building, chef Joshua Hobbs has been busy whipping up new varieties of sauces, cookies, pickles and rolls. Everything he makes is designed to better understand one ingredient: salt.
Hobbs is cooking for Nu-Tek Food Science, a firm led by four former ConAgra employees who say they have made a scientific breakthrough with a new low-sodium salt product, Salt for Life. With a patent and industry awards to show, Nu-Tek is now shopping the product to supermarket chains, packaged food manufacturers and suppliers, restaurants and institutional food service providers.
The story of the product's development sheds light on the ways food makers are responding to consumers' health concerns, the challenges manufacturers face and the conflicted relationship consumers have with products billed as more healthful. While processed food sometimes is blamed for the nation's problem with obesity and other health ills, Nu-Tek's makers say the interest in their product shows an industry making efforts to improve Americans' diets.
Salt is just one area where food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants have been quietly reformulating products. Other examples include McDonald's new whole-grain, egg white breakfast sandwich; improved low-calorie sugar products; and a new starch ingredient from Cargill that tastes like a refined carbohydrate but acts like fiber in the digestive system.
Containers of Salt for Life are not for sale yet on Nebraska supermarket shelves, but you may have eaten the product without knowing it. Nu-Tek executives said they are already selling a commercial version to five of the 10 largest consumer packaged goods companies and three of the top 10 fast-food restaurant chains.
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Nu-Tek's bakery industry distributor, Cain Foods Industries of Dallas, also is selling the product to manufacturers that are using it as an ingredient in baked goods available in supermarkets.
The use of low-sodium salt as in ingredient isn't always obvious on the packaging.
Salt substitutes and low-sodium salt products like Salt for Life have been widely used for years to reduce the sodium content of foods like canned soup and processed meats and breads, but those products are rarely stamped “low-sodium.” Food marketers want to lower the sodium content on the “nutrition facts” label without suggesting to the shopper that the product might taste bland.
Nor would “Salt for Life” or the brand names of its competitors show up in a list of ingredients. The low-sodium component in most of these products is potassium chloride, a naturally occurring compound just like the sodium chloride more familiar as table salt.
The food industry has been under scrutiny for its use of salt because most sodium consumption comes from processed and restaurant foods.
Nu-Tek executives and health organizations say that the average American consumes more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. High sodium consumption has been linked to high blood pressure, a factor in heart disease and stroke, and the American Heart Association recommends the low level of 1,500 milligrams daily for everyone. The Institute of Medicine recently revised its recommendations, saying everyone — including groups at higher risk for disease — can consume up to 2,300 milligrams.
The bottom line of both of the influential organizations' recommendations is: Most people need to cut back.
But reducing sodium isn't as simple as cutting salt out of commercial recipes. Not only does salt make familiar processed foods taste good, but it's also an important preservative and is essential to the texture of bread, cheese and sausage.
Major food manufacturers including ConAgra, Kraft and Heinz have been trimming sodium from their products for several years, using a combination of salt reduction, the addition of other flavors and spices and the use of low-sodium alternatives. Those alternatives pose some challenges, though, whether sold to food factories or for home use on supermarket shelves.
Nu-Tek says its new formula overcomes some of those traditional challenges.
For one, Nu-Tek says its product tastes more like real salt even on its own.
Potassium chloride has a bitter, metallic aftertaste, especially when heated in cooking, and makers of salt alternatives usually mask the taste by combining the potassium with a form of natural acid or traditional salt.
For example, Cumberland Packing Corp., the same Brooklyn, N.Y., company that makes Sweet 'N Low, manufactures Nu-Salt, a sodium-free potassium chloride product. Nu-Salt covers the bitter taste with the acid salt potassium bitartrate, known to cooks as cream of tartar. Another competitor, AlsoSalt, combines potassium chloride with the amino acid L-lysine to mask the bitter metallic taste.
But AlsoSalt's product carries the advice, “For the best flavor, do not taste it directly from the packet or bottle.”
Another problem is that available products perform unevenly across different manufacturing processes. A February study of salt trends by market research firm Packaged Facts said, “It is highly product dependent and there is no one-size-fits-all or magic bullet solution that will facilitate sodium reduction equally well in all processed foods.”
Cargill, for example, recommends its SaltWise product for salad dressing but not peanut butter, and for sprinkling on crackers after they're baked but not before.
Nu-Tek says its product works better across more applications.
Nu-Tek's inventor, chemist Sam Rao, started looking at developing a salt replacement in 2006, a year after he retired from ConAgra Foods as a vice president. Rao had experience making a familiar product healthier without turning off customers. He was behind the company's Ultragrain flour, which ConAgra says has the nutritional value of whole-wheat flour with the refined appearance, taste and texture of white flour.
Rao's salt research was funded by Tom Manuel, a former president and chief operating officer of the former ConAgra Meat Cos.
“The challenge is, how do you make potassium chloride taste like a salt without these metallic off-notes?” Rao said.
Rao's method, patented in 2011, involves more than just mixing the potassium chloride with a flavor-improving acid, a method he said doesn't work well for food processing. He actually binds the compound to the potassium chloride molecule in a process developed in rented lab space at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The sodium chloride in the process remains in its natural state, keeping a salty flavor and appearance, Rao said. Also key, he said, is that the product can be used instead of salt in a 1:1 ratio across many types of food manufacturing, cutting sodium by up to 50 percent while eliminating the need to “re-engineer” each recipe.
Seeking more funding to further develop and market the product, the men reached out in 2011 to a third ConAgra veteran, Don Mower, who has sales and marketing experience with several major food manufacturers.
The group made presentations to venture capitalists, and in February 2012, Nu-Tek announced it had secured “significant” investment from Khosla Ventures, a San Francisco-area venture capital firm founded by Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems. Nu-Tek said it would use the investment to fund an expansion of its production capacity, along with more marketing and research and development.
Now the firm is building out a production line in a plant in Fargo, N.D., set to open in August, and will continue to use co-packing plants to supplement production. Its headquarters are in Minnetonka, Minn., where Manuel is based. Nu-Tek's fourth ConAgra veteran, based in Omaha, is its senior vice president of sales and marketing, Dave Hickey, who was an owner of Signature Meats when ConAgra bought it.
This spring, the Nu-Tek salt product was a winner of the National Restaurant Association's Food & Beverage Innovations award, bringing additional publicity within the industry. Bill Gates, whose philanthropic work includes a focus on improving global human health, took note of the salt alternative and other Khosla-backed food alternatives in a post on “the future of food” on his TheGatesNotes blog.
Mower said that Nu-Tek has signed deals with five supermarket chains representing a total of several thousand grocery stores and that Salt for Life will start appearing on grocery shelves in August.
Bakery industry distributor Cain Foods and Nu-Tek inked their deal April 1 and the product is already in baked goods made by Cain customers. Tom McCurry, Cain's executive vice president for sales and marketing, said his bakery customers haven't had to adjust their processes or equipment in order to substitute Nu-Tek's salt for traditional salt.
Another benefit is that the ingredient list isn't full of chemical names — just naturally occurring potassium chloride. “One of the trends in the baking industry is toward 'cleaner' labels,” he said.
The bakery industry has been a target in the push for sodium reduction. A slice of bread has as much sodium as a small bag of potato chips, and people tend to eat more servings of bread. McCurry said Nu-Tek's salt allows bakers to cut back sodium content by one-third to one-half.
Makers of all types of packaged foods are searching for a better salt alternative, even though some alternatives have been on the market for 40 years, such as Morton Lite Salt.
“Our industry has been working very aggressively to lower sodium where possible,” said Robert Burns, vice president for health and nutrition policy at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Even after decades of reductions and salt alternatives, health watchdogs continue to pressure food makers, some demanding that the Food and Drug Administration mandate reductions.
In this environment, Burns said, manufacturers likely would be open to trying new products like Nu-Tek's, even if sodium reductions are not promoted in big letters on food packages.
That's what Nu-Tek executives are counting on as they take their invention to market. Mower compares the sodium effort to what it took manufacturers and restaurants to give up trans fats.
“As the food industry pushes itself on sodium reduction,” he said, “new ways and new technologies emerge that yesterday didn't exist, and open up new vistas on what's possible.”