Wegmans deli
In order to cater to its customer base, Wegmans delis feature a number of “natural” meat products.

For many consumers, the recurring question of what’s for dinner has been amended to now include how to avoid certain foods or food ingredients when eating dinner. Though avoidances are a result of food intolerances or allergies, many are simply a response to media inferences to negative health connotations.

When it comes to making cleaner, greener and better-for-you meat and poultry choices, label-reading consumers are increasingly opting for products described as “natural” without really knowing what they are getting. That’s because even though this term is defined by the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) as it pertains to meat, the definition is confusing and, at times, even misleading.

Unlike all other foods, where no definition for the term “natural” exists, USDA states that meat and poultry products can be labeled natural if they are only minimally processed and don’t have any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives or other additives. Hmm, so what’s minimally processed? Some could argue that deboning chicken breast is more than a minimal process. What about “artificial other additives?” There’s a great deal of latitude with interpretation of that one.

It’s no wonder that in early November, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in direct response to consumers who have requested the agency explore the use of the term natural, decided to seek public comment on the use of this term in the labeling of all human food products. According to FDA, the agency has a longstanding policy concerning the use of the term natural in human food labeling.

The FDA has considered the term to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives, regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization or irradiation. The agency also did not consider whether the term should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.

Gaining consumer insight

In early October, the Organic & Natural Health Association in Washington, DC, released results of a consumer research study conducted as a first step toward its initiative to set the standard for the term natural. The online research study of 1,005 US consumers was conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) in Harleysville, Pa., and found that one in three consumers do not make a quality distinction between the terms natural and organic and/or government regulation for products with such labels.

Interestingly, while 75 percent of consumers perceive that organic foods must be at least 95 percent free from synthetic additives, almost two-thirds of consumers expect the same standard from natural foods. Further, approximately half of the consumers surveyed believe that natural means the product is free of synthetic pesticides and is non-GMO, attributes that are unique characteristics of organic products.

Regarding synthetic ingredients, certified organic foods are defined as containing at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Up to 5 percent of the product can consist of approved agricultural materials not available organic or approved synthetic ingredients.

For example, conventional lactic acid, a non-synthetic ingredient, is widely used to control pathogens on raw meat carcasses – mainstream and organic – before processing, according to Tom Rourke, senior business development manager with Corbion Purac in Lenexa, Kan.

Conventional lactates, which are considered synthetic ingredients, can be used in organic ready-to-eat (RTE) meats to assist with shelf life and control pathogens. Here’s the irony, according to USDA’s definition of natural, which prohibits the use of artificial preservatives, lactates cannot be used in meats labeled natural. Talk about consumer confusion.

Then there’s the “natural curing” loop hole. The USDA 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’s evidence that natural curing agents, such as celery powder, are quite inefficient at converting from nitrate or nitrite to nitric oxide, the form that reacts with the oxygen-binding proteins in the meat, creating the cured color. This creates an environment in the meat system of higher residual nitrates and nitrites, the precursors to nitrosamines, which are potent carcinogens associated with tumor growth in humans.

With so many uncertain practices, it’s no wonder meat and poultry processors question the investment to go natural or organic…or neither, and just opt for some other claim that resonates with consumers.

According to the NMI research, consumers indicated that they were more likely to use natural than organic foods; in fact, 60 percent reported using organic less than once a week or not at all with more than a third using natural once a day or more. When it comes to meats labeled as natural, attributes of “no-added growth hormones” and “antibiotic-free” were of primary importance to consumers.

Innovative ingredient solutions

Farmland All-Natural Thick-cut bacon
Farmland, a unit of Smithfield Foods, has a number of products, including bacon, that are labeled as “all natural.”

With all the confusion, what’s a processor to do to better compete in the cleaner, greener and better-for-you meat and poultry segment, especially when attributes such as extended shelf life, food safety and yield are paramount? A number of suppliers offer ingredient options to get you there with minimal effort and investment.

Through a partnership with Prosur Ingredients of Spain, Wenda Ingredients in Naperville, Ill., offers four innovative clean-label solution sets for the natural and organic meat processing industries. The product lines are based on proprietary blends of fruit and spice extracts with proven antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Labeled either “fruit and spice extract” or simply “natural flavors,” these plant extracts provide protection against pathogens, while preserving the color and flavor qualities of both fresh and cooked refrigerated meat, poultry and seafood, according to Chad Boeckman, national accounts and marketing manager at Wenda Ingredients. All four ingredient solutions have a usage rate of 0.3 percent to 1 percent and are permissible in certified organic foods.

“One solution is for fresh meat and poultry and has been shown to improve shelf life by preventing oxidation and growth of spoilage microorganisms,” Boeckman says. “On fresh, conventionally packaged chicken breast, shelf life can be extended from 11-14 to 21-24 days.”

A blend of similar natural plant extracts with dried vinegar is designed for ensuring the safety and shelf life of refrigerated cooked meats, such as deli-style turkey breast. This blend has been proven effective against pathogenic bacteria as well as spoilage microorganisms.

Another innovative solution of fruit and spice extracts exerts the same antimicrobial properties while contributing desirable cured color and flavor to true uncured cooked meats, such as deli-style hams, bacon and pepperoni. “This system allows for cured color with the lowest possible amount residual nitrates or nitrites in the industry,” Boeckman says.

Prosur’s fourth and final system is a unique blend of yeast and citrus extract intended to replace sodium phosphate used in processed meats to increase yields, Boeckman says. “It is labeled simply ‘yeast extract, natural flavors,’ while contributing very low or no flavor to the finished meat. It’s not considered a binder, yet it functions similarly to phosphates, as it replenishes natural adenosine triphosphate and chelates divalent cations.”

When it comes to using plant extracts for natural shelf life extension in meat and poultry, rosemary and green tea extracts are the most recognized for their ability to conserve the appearance, taste and quality of raw and cooked meat products, both refrigerated and frozen. 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.

“Manufacturers are looking for solutions to keep meat and poultry products fresher and safer for an extended period of time,” says Courtney Schwartz, senior marketing communications manager of Kemin Food Technologies in Des Moines, Iowa. ‘They need ingredient solutions that protect a product’s color, flavor and delay microbial spoilage. These versatile, natural solutions are label-friendly alternatives to traditional tocopherols or conventional synthetic antioxidants commonly used in the industry.”

Applegate uncured ham
Applegate Natural & Organic Meats has a full line of products that fall under the “natural” umbrella.

Acerola extract is also proving to be a useful antioxidant in meat and poultry. Extracted from the namesake wild plant grown in tropical and subtropical regions, acerola extract boasts high levels of antioxidant vitamin C.

“Our acerola extract blends delay both lipid and myoglobin oxidation, thereby delaying the onset of color loss and maintaining the desirable color and quality of meat products,” Schwartz says. “When used in combination with rosemary and green tea extracts, acerola is more effective at delaying discoloration than either extract alone.”

Kemin also offers buffered vinegar solutions to help manufacturers offer label-friendly meat and poultry products for improved food safety. Such vinegar solutions have been shown to be effective in extending shelf life by controlling growth of foodborne pathogens in fresh and RTE meat and poultry products, without negatively impacting the texture or flavor of the finished product.

Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Kalsec offers conventional and organic certified natural antioxidants for meat and poultry applications. “We also offer many colors and spice and herb flavor extracts that are organic suitable,” says Gary Augustine, Kalsec’s executive director-market development. “There is a premium associated with the organic-certified products that varies based on the product.

“We also have many organic-suitable products,” Augustine adds. “These products meet certain standards that allow them to be used in the 5 percent of ‘other ingredients’ that are not organic certified. Many of our products are incorporated at low usage levels allowing organic-suitable products to be used by the producer to maintain their organic certification labeling claim.”

That “5 percent other ingredients” is something the Organic & Natural Health Association would like to see be part of an official definition for natural. According to Karen Howard, CEO and executive director of the association, an acceptable definition for natural should be comparable to the definition of organic, requiring that all-natural labeled food be non-GMO and not contain artificial preservatives, colors, flavoring or sweeteners, but in some cases there will be additional criteria beyond organic standards. For example, beef will be held to organic standards and must be grass fed and pastured to earn a natural designation. The association will also promote quality standards for organic and natural by endorsing the ancillary certifications upon which consumers currently rely upon, including non-GMO and grass-fed beef.

The association’s next step is to develop a voluntary regulatory compliance and certification program for the term natural, which it hopes to release during the first half of 2016, in conjunction with a consumer education campaign supporting transparency of product purchases.

To view the complete study, “Consumer Insights on Organic and Natural” visit: www.organicandnatural.org.