December 10. 2012 2:00AM - Last modified: December 13. 2012 1:32PM

Wixon offers low-sodium salt alternative

Innovations

By Erica Breunlin

  
Wixon Inc.'s KCLean Salt looks like salt, tastes like salt and functions like salt in many of today's popular food products, but without the amount of sodium contained in salt.

KCLean Salt is a granular substance composed of 50 percent salt, 50 percent potassium chloride and a taste modifier. It reduces sodium content in food products such as macaroni and cheese, salad dressings, soups and meats to make for more nutritious meal options.

Wixon, a St. Francis-based manufacturer of seasonings and flavor systems, developed the KCLean Salt solution in response to market demand and healthy trends on the part of both individual consumers and the food product companies serving them.

"I think the food industry in general is very aware of the need for reducing our sodium consumption," said Mariano Gascon, vice president of research and development at Wixon. "The food industry in general is well-educated."

Wixon cites the baby boomer generation along with children's nutrition and an escalation in obesity rates as the drivers of health and wellness trends, which include the sprouting of farmers markets and a greater emphasis on fresh, natural ingredients.

In researching health and wellness trends, Wixon found that 66 percent of consumers select food based on healthfulness. The company also determined that many consumers analyze food labels to learn about a product's calorie, sugar, total fat and sodium content when deciding which foods to buy. About half of consumers review sodium levels when it comes to processed meat products.

"So we identified (sodium reduction) early on as one of the potential wellness trends that we may be able to address through a technological product," said Wixon president Peter Gottsacker.

In March this year, Wixon launched the Wix-Fresh Reduced Sodium System (RSS), a variation of KCLean Salt targeted specifically toward the meat industry. Within RSS, Wixon has modified the formula behind KCLean Salt to accommodate meat which, according to Gascon, ranks among the most complex systems that Wixon applies the salt substitute to with factors like fat, water activity and meat proteins to consider.

The salt solution is very application-specific, Gascon said. Wixon adjusts the combination of taste modifiers for different kinds of meat because consumers' perception of salt in food varies among meats and other food.

RSS can reduce sodium content in meat products by up to 50 percent. Besides taste, salt affects foods' texture and color and also has preservation functionalities. So salt cannot be removed from most foods completely, Gascon said.

"You cannot make a salt-free product," Gascon said. "It would be hard to compensate all the functionalities that salt brings."

The brains behind the development and application of the KCLean Salt solution and RSS involved Gascon's expertise along with the input of several members of the 16-person product development team that he oversees. The team is composed of five divisions that include a seasoning and protein group, culinary group, industrial ingredients group, consumer products group and flavor group.

The flavor group primarily developed KCLean Salt beginning about five years ago, Gascon said. But the substitute's application to different foods required attention from the other four divisions.

Wixon sells its salt substitute and RSS commercially in two distinct platforms. The ingredient manufacturer works with national food product companies who want to incorporate the salt substitute into their already existing food items to lower sodium content for consumers. Wixon also caters to companies creating new food products, which allows for more leeway in constructing the prototype for the flavor.

"Bottom line is one size doesn't fit all," said Ron Ratz, Wixon's director of protein development. "The uniqueness of our organization is that we have the ability to customize and fine-tune the flavor profiles to meet the demands of the consumer or the expectation of the finished product of the flavor profile."

Wixon's salt substitute is equally distinctive from other substitutes on the market in its ability to hide the bitter aftertaste left by its potassium chloride component. While potassium chloride has traditionally been the replacement of sodium, its aftertaste has a metallic sensation, Gascon said. Using a combination of taste modifiers, Wixon managed to mask the aftertaste as well as enhance the salty sensation of the potassium chloride.

Wixon has a full line of taste modifiers, which can affect other food factors like sourness.

One of the company's most significant ongoing hurdles in developing, marketing and selling KCLean Salt and RSS has been cost effectiveness.

"Salt is a very inexpensive product," Gascon said. "So anything you use to replace salt with will be more expensive."

Despite the cost, Wixon's sales have continued to remain on an incline, according to Gottsacker.

"Our sales are still increasing but not at the rate that they were increasing prior to the recession," he said.

Wixon's total sales for 2012 are approximately $100 million. Its 2012 sales of KCLean Salt are up more than 270 percent from sales in 2011, Gottsacker said.

Wixon executives credit the salt substitute's sales success through the economic downtown largely to consumers' concerns about health and wellness.

"We continue to see our sales increase because the greater trend of health and wellness is probably more significant than the cost impact (of the salt substitute)," Gottsacker said.

"Sodium reduction isn't going away," Ratz said. "Consumers are zeroing in on the nutritional panel."

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