Incentives to replace phosphates and conventional moisture-retaining binders with alternatives have grown alongside demand for better-for-you meat and poultry products.

Chef David Burke dry-ages whole-muscle meat to serve at his steakhouses. He patented a process involving a drying room where an entire wall is lined with pink Himalayan salt to draw moisture out of meat. This concentrates flavor, while also tenderizing the meat. It’s time-intensive, requiring at least one month to notice any significant changes, which makes the process unrealistic for meat intended for retail and most foodservice outlets. For these channels, adding moisture and locking it in helps keep meat delicious.

“Adding moisture is an economical approach to enhancing the tenderness, flavor and juiciness of meat, improving palatability and eating quality of the end product,” says Tom Rourke, senior business development manager, Corbion, Kansas City, Mo.

With bone-in or boneless whole-muscle products, moisture is added in the form of a brine or marinade. “It can be added to the meat by soaking, massaging, injecting or vacuum tumbling, or a combination of these processes,” according to Hector Flores, national account manager, Proliant Meat Ingredients, Ankeny, Iowa. “The most common method is injection immediately followed by vacuum tumbling. This guarantees the best penetration, retention and overall product consistency.”

He says it is increasingly common for whole-muscle pork products, such as loins, to be enhanced. “Traditionally pork is cooked to higher-end temperatures, increasing the chance for a dryer, tougher meat,” Flores says.

With poultry, enhancement is almost expected. A timely example most Americans can relate to is the holiday turkey. “Many turkeys sold in the retail market today are self-basting,” says Jit Ang, executive vice president of research and development, International Fiber Corp., North Tonawanda, NY. “These turkeys are typically injected with a broth to keep them from drying out excessively during the cooking process.”

Most ready-to-eat meats contain added moisture, in particular, emulsified or cured products, such as bologna, hot dogs and all types of sausage, as well as deli meats. “Ground and formed patties, including burgers and breakfast sausage, are also commonly enhanced,” according to Callen Sistrunk, group leader-batter and breading and meat applications, Ingredion, Westchester, Ill. “The water can be added directly to emulsified and formed products by mixing it into the ground-meat matrix.”

There’s an economic angle to adding moisture, as the cost of many foods, including meat products, depends on the amount of water they contain, as water is an inexpensive ingredient. Food manufacturers often try to incorporate as much as possible in a formulation, without exceeding legal maximums.

“Like with any other ingredient, water is declared on the ingredient statement at the position it would appear as a percentage of the formulation,” Sistrunk adds. “There are different legal limits to the amount of water that can be added to meat and this varies by product. It ranges from as little as 3 percent in fresh meats to more than 40 percent in highly extended hams.”

Hams have unique labeling guidelines, as added water is a part of the curing process. “Hams in the US must follow the protein fat-free [PFF] regulations stipulating that a product needs to contain at least 20.5 percent protein, after fat removal, to be labeled simply as ‘ham,’” Rourke says.

There are three other categories. “Ham with natural juices” must contain at least 18.5 percent protein, while “ham water added” is at least 17 percent protein. There’s also a “ham and water product” option. These products have a PFF of less than 17 percent and the percent of added nonmeat ingredients – water, binders, etc. – must be declared on the label.

Retaining moisture

In order for added moisture to be retained in the meat, processors rely on various ingredients to bind water and lock it in the protein matrix.

Moisture retention and flavor are important attributes of phosphate alternatives.

“These ingredients can be divided into two categories based on functionality,” says Jim Anderson, technical coordinator-meat, poultry and seafood, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis, Mo. “First you have the protein modifiers, such as phosphates, citrates and carbonates. Then you have absorbing agents, which hold water and subsequently thicken or gel within the meat structure.”

Marinades have traditionally contained phosphates, as phosphates open up the structure of the myofilament in the muscle. This increases the number of binding sites for water, and thus enhances moisture retention. The usage level for sodium and potassium phosphates in meat and poultry products is limited to 0.5 percent.

Starches are common absorbing agents. “For example, starch may be added to enhance the moistness and tenderness of chicken breast at a usage level of 0.6 percent to 1.8 percent of finished product,” says Sistrunk. The starch is added to the marinade, which might contain other ingredients including salt, seasonings and phosphates.

“Carrageenans are very useful for improving costs of pre-cooked ‘natural’ products where alkaline phosphates are prohibited or for any intact muscle food where sodium reduction is important,” says Mac Orcutt, fellow and principal applications scientist, DuPont Nutrition & Health, St. Louis, Mo. “Use level depends on raw meat quality, extension level and desired texture of the final product, with use ranging from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent.

“Isolated soy product, also known as soy fiber, offers formulation cost reduction of beef patties without impacting texture and eating quality,” Orcutt says. “Inclusion of 1 percent to 2 percent isolated soy product in cooked-beef patties containing textured soy protein concentrate could improve cooking yields by up to five percentage points without compromising flavor and texture while offering dramatic cost savings. However, when used at greater than 2 percent, isolated soy product may have a negative impact on patty texture.”

As demand for better-for-you meat and poultry products increases, there is growing incentive to replace phosphates and conventional moisture-retaining binders with alternatives, according to Tom Leahy, spokesman for Sunsweet Growers, Yuba City, Calif. “Plum ingredients are a natural, cost-neutral option to bind moisture into meat just as effectively as phosphates,” he says.

There are a number of options depending on the application. For example, fresh plum concentrate is made from the juice of fresh prune plums and can be used in marinades. “Plum fiber is made from dehydrated prune pulp,” Leahy says. “This hygroscopic fiber can absorb about six times its weight, which not only helps meat products retain moisture but also allows seasoning rubs to stay on the surface of the meat, instead of letting the salt in the rub draw out moisture and dislodge seasonings.” It is readily mixed into ground-meat products or dissolved in marinades.

“Ground from whole prunes, plum powder is also extremely hygroscopic and performs well in wicking away purge in marinated raw products or cook-in-bag products,” he adds. “It is lighter and sweeter than plum fiber and similar to fresh plum concentrate, it decreases warmed-over flavor.”

Scott Turowski, technical sales manager, Sensus America Inc., Lawrenceville, NJ, says, “Research has shown that chicory root fiber can functionally replace items such as phosphates to improve moisture retention, particularly in raw poultry products. This has been achieved through addition levels of approximately 3 percent by weight. The results have also showed an improvement in taste and texture in product that was subsequently fried when compared with a standard treatment.”

Most binders are effective for binding moisture, but very few are good for binding fats and oils. “Insoluble fibers bind both moisture and fats and oils,” Ang says. “The effective binding of fats and oils is important because these components carry a lot of flavor, which is desirable in the finished product. This is why insoluble fibers, such as cellulose, are becoming increasingly popular in meat and poultry products. Although this technology is already widespread and long established in Europe, it is still novel in North America.” Common applications include meatballs, sausage patties and boneless chicken breasts.

Flavor is an important attribute, which is why meat broths and stocks are often used instead of plain water as a source of moisture. “The broths and stocks are used in marinades and enhancement solutions for flavor development,” Flores says. “We also offer functional meat proteins that assist with flavor development, brine retention, texture improvement, and purge reduction and drip loss during processing and throughout product shelf-life.”

Leahy concludes, “Manufacturers must remember that while some additional moisture improves texture, too much causes the product to take on an unappealing, spongy texture. With poultry, for example, 8 percent to 10 percent is the sweet spot; beyond 18 percent and the product loses its integrity. Excess added moisture also makes it difficult to get meat or poultry to brown during the cooking process.”