Could low-salt ramen actually taste good?

Salt Substitute
Credit: © Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Low-sodium prepared foods are not known for, well, tasting good. But manufacturers are beginning to work with a promising ingredient that could revolutionize the low-sodium marketplace.

Last June, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the makers of many foods slash sodium levels, the goal being to lower the average American's salt consumption from 3,400 mg a day to 2,300 mg a day. But for many companies, this mandate poses a threat to their primary objective: making their food enjoyable. As NPR points out, many ramen and instant noodle manufacturers have resisted lowering their sodium levels because it would sap the deliciousness from their product. But one man is on a mission to prove to them there's a flavorful alternative for salt, which just so happens to be good for you, too.

Hans Lienesch, who built a career on tasting and ranking different ramens as the "Ramen Rater," decided he needed to make a significant dietary sodium reduction after deciding that his intake was boosting both his heart rate and stress level. However, he knew from experience how bland and tasteless low-sodium instant noodles could be. Then, Lienesch was invited to do a blind taste test of a salt alternative: potassium chloride in place of sodium chloride. One taste, and he was hooked.

"Not only is it knocking out a whole bunch of sodium and replacing it with potassium... it's making the food more savory," Lienesch told NPR. "That just sold me right there." Lienesch began recommending the replacement, which brings along the added health benefit of potassium, to the noodle companies he had worked for, but many were still hesitant.

Others have already boarded the potassium chloride train, including Cargill, one of North America's largest beef producers, and researchers at Unilever who published a journal saying that potassium chloride could be a "valuable, safe replacer" of salt. While brands like Cargill find it easier to work the flavoring into their meat, because of potassium chloride's slightly more bitter taste, that difference can be distinguishable in dishes that rely more heavily on salt for flavor.

"Everyone wants that salt substitute, but it's never that simple," says Chris Loss, the director of research and development at the Culinary Institute of America. "It's never a one-for-one substitute." Regardless, making the switch from sodium to potassium could mean some major health benefits. In a 2006 study by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, it was found that a group of elderly Taiwanese men who ate a more potassium-enriched salt diet were more likely to withstand cardiovascular disease. And for people like Lienesch, who are required to consume salty things in their line of work, a lower-sodium salt could mean great things for their health.