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No increased Listeria risk in sodium reduced processed cheese

–by Liz Morrison

The salt content of cheese may be lowered without compromising food safety, new research shows.

Salt in cheese limits the growth of harmful bacteria. But, reducing the salt content of American cheese slices did not increase the survival of a virulent pathogen, Listeria monocytogenes compared to regular cheese, according to a University of Minnesota study, sponsored by AURI and the Midwest Dairy Association.

“This study provided the first actual data on Listeria cell survival on commercially available, sodium reduced American processed cheese,” says study leader Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, University of Minnesota professor of food science and nutrition. “Our results indicated that there were no differences in L. monocytogenes survival patterns on slice-on-slice or individually wrapped process American cheese at different temperatures.”

This finding is important because Listeria can cause serious food-borne illness, says Charan Wadhawan, AURI senior scientist of food and nutrition. Although processed cheese has rarely been involved in Listeria outbreaks, a recall of processed Swiss cheese in Canada in 2010 shows that the potential for contamination exists. Now, the new research assures consumers that sodium reduced processed cheese carries no more food safety risk than regular cheese.

The development of sodium–reduced processed cheese is part of a larger food industry drive to cut the salt content in processed foods. “Most Americans consume far more sodium than health experts recommend,” Wadhawan says, and that can lead to health problems like high blood pressure.

The dairy industry is a key part of this effort, says Mary Wilcox, vice president of business development for the Midwest Dairy Association (MDA), Minnesota’s dairy check-off organization. In 2009, U.S. cheese makers formed the Cheese and Sodium Best Practices Task Force to work on ways to reduce sodium in cheese.

This is a complex challenge, involving far more than simply putting in less salt. “Reducing sodium in processed cheese requires innovative, research-based solutions,” says Bill Graves, senior vice president of product research at the Dairy Research Institute.

Salt contributes to flavor and texture, melting characteristics and shelf life, Wilcox explains. Salt also “limits the growth of pathogenic — or unwanted — bacteria” and retards spoilage.

The Listeria study was one of many initiatives organized by AURI to help Minnesota’s cheese industry with research and development, says Jennifer Wagner-Lahr, AURI senior director of innovation. The state has 41 companies that manufacture cheese — many of them producer cooperatives.

Cheese makers are taking a gradual approach to reducing sodium in cheese, says Donna O’Connor, AURI food and nutrition scientist. Sodium reduced processed cheeses are now being sold in grocery stores, although they are not usually labeled as reduced sodium, O’Connor says.

Some examples of sodium reduced processed cheeses now on the market include:

  • Velveeta: 10% salt reduction
  • Kraft Singles American Slices: 18% salt reduction
  • Most processed cheese for schools from the USDA: 25% salt reduction

Read more about this and other dairy research at