by Angela Sams
As consumers, many of us have probably seen low-sodium chicken broth, or reduced salt frozen dinners. In effort to cater to those who desire a healthier diet, there are definitely many options out there when it comes to limiting sodium intake. However, a 2012 report published by a consumer-research firm found that “low-sodium” product sales had declined by 5 percent in the last year. It seems that consumers want less salt due to health concerns, but may not be willing to tolerate a replacement food that may not taste as good.
The recommended daily sodium intake is only 2,300 mg, but average Americans are consuming 1000 mg more than that each day. Over-consumption of sugar is also a growing problem. Both women and men are consuming much more than the recommended 100 calories per day of added sugar (for women) and the 150 calories per day of added sugar (for men).
So why do we need so much of the bad stuff in our food? There are a lot of reasons, it turns out. Salt and sugar are both well-known preservatives. Sugar can lower the temperature at which food freezes, and salt is also a factor in food’s texture (such as dough stickiness, for example). It seems that a good substitute may be very elusive.
But what if we could trick ourselves into thinking our food tastes good, even if it doesn’t? This is where our sense of smell comes in, and it’s a topic that Robert Sobel, Vice President of Research and Innovation at flavor company FONA International, has been investigating ever since he read about the concept of “phantom aroma” back in 2009. This term is used to describe a phenomenon where the brain perceives that it tastes certain ingredients, even when in reality they are not there at all.
Because our sense of smell and taste are so closely intertwined, we often associate certain smells with certain tastes. In one study, participants had a 15 percent increased perception of salt when they smelled beef in a broth that was low-sodium. Similarly, when people eat something that smells like vanilla, they perceive the food as sweet, even though it may not actually contain very much sugar. The trick is finding a balance so that the additional flavor isn’t overt enough to disappoint us, but still triggers our senses to perceive foods as being more sweet or salty than they are in reality.
Many phantom aromas are synthetically produced and therefore involve introducing more processed substances into one’s body, which has critics shaking their heads. However, if these aromas can help consumers eat less sugar and salt in the long run, it may come down to choosing the lesser of two evils.
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