Consumers continue to demand products with clean labels that provide free-from information.
The push for clean-label meat and poultry products will grow stronger as consumers increasingly try to clean up their diet

The desire to have foods customized for personal preferences makes the deli service counter increasingly attractive to today’s foodie consumer. Slice the corned beef thinner. Shave the ham. Please, just cut me an inch-thick slice of all five salamis for a charcuterie platter.

“At the deli counter, consumers can get what they want and how much they want for that particular shopping trip,” says Tom Katen, technical service manager-meats, Cargill Texturizing Solutions, Minneapolis. And, as with all products sold at retail, cleaner, simpler labels are highly desirable.

According to “Meat and Poultry: US Retail Market Trends and Opportunities,” a recently published report from Packaged Facts, Rockville, Maryland, meat and poultry processors are responding to consumer demands for clean-label products by providing more organic options, as well as products with fewer additives or preservatives or none at all.

“Consumers are looking for products with clean labels that provide that free-from information,” says David Sprinkle, research director. “Health and wellness in the current vernacular is defined by what a product doesn’t have, such as artificial ingredients or preservatives, more than by what is in it. This is a trend expected to continue and grow in 2016 and beyond.”

Free-from ingredients

Formulating clean-label foods most often refers to eliminating chemical-sounding additives or any ingredient recognized as being artificial, most notably certain colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners. Most ingredients with a name that implies extra processing are also considered unclean, such as modified corn starch.

Flavors are easy to differentiate, as flavors are identified as artificial or natural and must be labeled as such on ingredient statements. Choosing natural flavors allows for a “free from artificial flavors” claim.

Similarly, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines chemical preservatives as any chemical that, when added to food, tends to prevent or retard deterioration. Ingredients excluded from this list include common salt, sugars, vinegars, spices or oils extracted from spices, as well as substances added to food by direct exposure, for example wood smoke.

The more that food is handled in the deli, the more at risk it is for being contaminated.
The more that food is handled in the deli, the more it is at risk for being contaminated.

Deli meats don’t typically rely on sweeteners, so eliminating artificial sweeteners is a non-issue. But colors, surprisingly, are increasingly more relevant as consumers crave bolder flavors, and colors are often used to convey the flavor.

“Customers are increasingly interested in bold and varied flavor options. The usage of naturally sourced colors such as paprika, annatto and carrot are relevant in these applications either as a surface coating, in casings or in a marinade, depending upon the formulation,” says Poulson Joseph, lead scientist-antioxidants for meat and poultry, Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Michigan. “The advantage of spice and herb extracts is that they allow processors the ability to specify the particular herb or spice on the label, for example, chipotle pepper extract.” The word color does not need to be stated.

When it comes to making “free from artificial color” claims, it’s important to fully understand the regulations surrounding colors. Basically, any ingredient with the sole purpose of adding color to a food or beverage is a color additive, with all color additives requiring approval by FDA as a food additive. FDA classifies color additives as either “certified” or “exempt from certification.” The former is also commonly referred to as artificial or synthetic; and the latter, by default, is often characterized as natural. But again, these are commonly accepted terms, not legal descriptors.

That’s because FDA does not consider any color added to a food as being natural, unless the color is natural to the product itself. Because there are no so-called natural colors obtained from meat and poultry sources, any color added to meat and poultry is considered an additive.

Natural preservation

Preservatives are added to deli meats to assist with food safety and extend shelf life by retarding oxidation. There’s a growing range of clean-label options available to processors.

“The more that a food is handled, the more at risk it is for being contaminated, making the deli counter an easy target for pathogens,” says Courtney Schwartz, senior marketing communications manager, Kemin Food Technologies, Des Moines, Iowa. “Some manufacturers have started using high-pressure pasteurization as an intervention step. It is very effective and offers a very clean label. The concern with using this method alone is that it leaves the meat unprotected once the package is opened at home, or within a service deli counter setting.”

Rosemary extracts can provide oxidation protection in meat and poultry products.
Rosemary extracts can provide oxidation protection in meat and poultry products — helping preserve appearance, taste and quality.

Katen adds, “Deli counter meats are at the mercy of each individual deli’s good manufacturing practices, which fall out of the control of the manufacturer of that meat item.” To protect the brand, processors must be proactive and use food safety ingredients.

Listeria monocytogenes can live and thrive on plastic, metal and in water,” says Saurabh Kumar, senior applications manager-meat, Corbion, Lenexa, Kansas. “In addition, as deli meat is often passed over multiple surfaces such as the slicer, the worktop and the display case, this also creates further opportunity for cross-contamination. As a result, it’s important that meat is preserved correctly and securely to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria.

“We developed natural and clean-label safety and preservation solutions specifically for deli meat manufacturing,” Kumar says. “These include cultured corn sugar/dextrose and vinegar blends, and vinegar. We also recently launched a new, natural multifunctional ingredient blend that extends shelf life, controls pathogens, increases yield, retards oxidation and assists with natural curing.

“These ingredients are made from naturally fermented sugars using specific food cultures that produce a range of different actives, such as organic acids, small peptides and residual sugars,” he says. “As such, they can be used by formulators to create deli meats bearing a natural claim, as they appear on the ingredient statement as vinegar or cultured corn sugar. They replace ‘non-clean-label’ common ingredients such as lactates, diacetates, propionates, phosphates, starches, carrageenan and nitrite.”

When it comes to ensuring food safety, propionates have a reputation as being one of the most effective antimicrobials in meat and poultry, according to Schwartz. “But many do not consider them a clean-label ingredient. That’s why we developed buffered vinegar solutions that have been shown to effectively inhibit Listeria in various meat cuts, including ready-to-eat deli meats, hot dogs and smoked sausages.

“Acetic acid is the key active ingredient in buffered vinegar,” Schwartz says. “We have ingredients made with either sodium or potassium buffers, with the latter designed to assist with lower-sodium formulating.”

Looks and texture matter

In addition to food safety, deli meat manufacturers are looking for ingredient solutions that protect a product’s color, flavor and delay microbial spoilage. Maintaining moisture is critical as well, as succulence relates to freshness.

“We offer a range of natural plant extracts – rosemary, green tea and acerola – that provide oxidative protection in meat and poultry products, helping preserve appearance, taste and quality, thus keeping them fresher,” Schwartz says.

Rosemary and green tea extracts are the most recognized for their ability to conserve the appearance, taste and quality of deli meats. Carefully selected plant breeds enable production of the most potent extracts. Suppliers blend the extracts into the most effective combination for a specific application and desired shelf life. These versatile, natural solutions are label-friendly alternatives to traditional tocopherols or conventional synthetic antioxidants commonly used in the industry.

Other increasingly common clean-label claims in deli meats focus on curing. The US Dept. of Agriculture defines an uncured product as one that has been preserved without the use of chemical agents. These products can be labeled “uncured,” “no nitrates added” or “no nitrites added,” very label-friendly terminology. These products are free of chemical curing agents, but they are typically made with ingredients that are inherent sources of nitrates and nitrites, such as celery, spinach and Swiss chard. There are also fruit and spice extract blends with proven antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

“We offer a fruit and spice extract blend that controls pathogenic and spoilage microbial growth while contributing the desirable cured color and flavor to ‘uncured’ labeled cooked meats, such as deli-style hams, bacon and pepperoni,” says Chad Boeckman, national accounts and marketing manager, Wenda Ingredients, Naperville, Illinois. “This system allows for cured color with no-to-low residual nitrates or nitrites, the lowest in the industry.” The ingredient blend is labeled simply “natural flavors.”

Ingredients to assist with binding moisture in deli meats are paramount, as the open-air environment of the service counter can cause a meat to dry out. Suppliers offer several minimally processed moisture-binding ingredients for use in deli meat manufacturing.

“Our native potato and tapioca starches are often used as water-holding compounds,” Katen says. “They can replace modified starches for a cleaner label.”

Olivier Chevalier, business development manager of meat applications with Beneo, part of the Südzucker Group, based in Belgium, says, “We offer rice starch that binds moisture, assisting with maintaining yields and margins without any negative impact on the end product. Rice starch can be added via a marinade, either injected or tumbled, and ensures that the finished deli meat is juicy and tender. Also, being pure white, rice starch ensures that poultry, in particular, has a clean look, with no pinking.”

The free-from movement will continue to grow as consumers increasingly try to clean up their diet. The good news is there are clean-label ingredient options to assist with maintaining deli meat quality and integrity.