Creating the perfect partial salt replacement

Mirko Betti hoolds the kokumi product he and his team created in his right hand Mirko Betti shows the traditional kokumi product in his left hand and the cleaner kokumi product he and his team created with a more efficient technology in his right hand.
In the quest to lower sodium consumption in the North American diet, a team of University of Alberta researchers recently received $340,000 to conduct sensory and taste trials of the salt flavour enhancement product it created with a new, cleaner and more efficient technology.

The team took proteins from low value parts of poultry, fish and vegetables and created molecules that have kokumi characteristics. Kokumi was recently identified by the Japanese as the sixth basic taste, an addition to salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (or savoury). Translated often as “heartiness” or “mouthfulness,” kokumi describes compounds in foods that don’t have their own flavour. Rather, they enhance the flavour with which they’re combined.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to significantly reduce the sodium in several food products by replacing it with the kokumi we developed. Because the kokumi amplifies the taste of the salt, it allows foods to have much less salt and be better for you, without sacrificing the flavour. Done right, most consumers wouldn’t know the difference,” says Mirko Betti, who leads the team that also includes Michael Ganzle, Andreas Schieber and Maurice Ndagijimana.

While the flavour enhancer is one product among others that allows food manufacturers to replace salt without sacrificing flavour, kokumi is considered the best because it provides the best punch or first impact of a food, the best mildness and the best long-lasting taste development.

Kokumi is already sold on the market to food manufacturers as a salt enhancer by at least one major international food and chemical company who creates it from soy beans. However, the traditional way in which kokumi is manufactured also leads to the creation of many unhealthy by-products.

What makes Betti’s kokumi unique is the way in which he manufactured it.

The ALES team broke the proteins from the various sources into their component fragments as is usually done. It then selected specific fragments and mixed them with sugars but instead of using the typical heat transfer process to create the kokumi molecules, it used a fermentation process, thereby drastically reducing the unwanted by-products and making the process much more cost-effective.

Plans are now underway to use the funding to conduct sensory and taste trials to fine tune the technology.

The potential for the kokumi market is staggering as consumption of the food enhancer isn’t linked to the ill effects, including heart disease, associated with overconsumption of sodium, which is common in the North American diet.

According to Health Canada, Canadians consume twice the amount of sodium they need every day. While it’s an essential part of a healthy diet, too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Overconsumption of sodium has also been linked to increased risks of osteoporosis, stomach cancer and the severity of asthma.

The funding, which was provided by the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions, gives the team a two-year window in which to conduct the trials and refine its technology to eventually patent and sell it.