More meat and poultry manufacturers are working toward getting clean or "natural" labels on their products by making substitutions to their ingredient lists.

Ready-to-eat meats

Supply limits many of these specially raised meats from being converted into ready-to-eat meats, such as luncheon meats, sausages and heat-and-eat meals; however, as supply increases, more innovation will take place. This is particularly true in the organic sector, which continues to boom.

The US organic food industry posted sales of $39.7 billion in 2015, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to the Organic Trade Association, Washington, DC. Nearly 5 percent of all the food sold in the US in 2015 was organic. Consumers’ seemingly unquenchable desire for organic, along with their craving for convenience and flavor adventure, has processors developing ready-to-eat packaged meals and meats with organic ingredients.

The variety of organic packaged foods is expected to grow as more ingredients receive organic certification from the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). The issue is making these packaged foods flavorful, as organic herbs and spices can be challenging to source.

The USDA requires certified organic products to have at least 95 percent organic ingredients in order to have the official organic seal on the package. There is an approved National List of allowed non-organically produced agricultural-based ingredients for use in organic-certified foods. Herbs and spices are not on this list, which means foods certified organic can only contain organically certified herbs and spices.

“There are several factors that make sourcing organic ingredients challenging. First and foremost, there simply might not be a crop available in the quantity that brands demand,” said Ilana Orlofsky, marketing coordinator, Imbibe, Niles, Illinois. “In addition, crops vary season to season and year to year. Taste profiles may differ, which makes it harder to create a standardized, uniform product.”

That’s why many meat and poultry processors are choosing to use “natural” as their clean label statement. This includes using what is known as “natural curing” in meats such as bacon, ham, hot dogs and sausages.

The USDA defines an uncured product as one that has been preserved without the use of chemical agents, namely nitrates and nitrites. These products can be labeled “uncured,” “no nitrates added” or “no nitrites added,” very label-friendly terminology.

Nitrates and nitrites contribute flavor and color, while also preventing growth of the pathogen Clostridium botulinum. Clean-label alternatives to pure nitrates and nitrites are ingredients that are inherently concentrated sources of these functionally active compounds. Celery and spinach both contain nitrates. Celery juice, as a liquid or dried into a powder, specifically, has been shown to be effective in controlling bacterial growth.

There are also fruit and spice extract blends that control pathogenic and spoilage microbial growth while contributing the desirable cured color and flavor to uncured labeled cooked meats. Such blends allow for no-to-low residual nitrates or nitrites in the finished product. There are some natural plant extract blends that come combined with citrus fiber, which is a clean-label alternative to sodium phosphate, another common ingredient in ready-to-eat meats.

Phosphates have historically been used to assist with retaining the tenderness of products after thermal processing. Clean-label options include various hydrocolloids, such as fibers, gums, proteins and starches. These ingredients may provide firmness and succulence with purge reduction. They may assist with forming and shaping, all while improving yield.

Gelatin is a type of protein that binds water. It is only permitted in select meat and poultry products, including sausage, luncheon meat and canned hams. Gelatin is a familiar, natural ingredient and complements clean-label trends.

Another option is dried plums, which have been shown to effectively bind moisture in animal proteins. They also contribute sensory improvements that achieve true protein flavor, juiciness, texture and eating quality.

Controlling the growth of the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat meats should always be considered and there are a number of clean-label options available. Specialty buffered vinegar solutions have been shown to effectively inhibit L. monocytogenes in various meat cuts, including raw uncured turkey, cured ham and enhanced pork loin, as well as ready-to-eat deli meats, hot dogs and other smoked and fresh sausages. Acetic acid is the key active ingredient in buffered vinegar. With vinegar a well-known ingredient, it is recognized as a clean-label alternative to chemical antimicrobials.

Dried vinegar ingredients can be combined with herbs and spices that function as antioxidants and can help extend shelf life.

Rosemary and green tea extracts are the most recognized for their ability to conserve the appearance, taste and quality of meat and poultry.Rosemary extract is a concentrated source of carnosic acid, a potent antioxidant that slows the development of oxidative rancidity in raw and cooked meat. It can be dispersed in brine and injected into various meats or dispersed into a solution with other flavors and topically sprayed onto meats. Another option is to dry blend the powdered form with seasonings and apply it topically by either tumbling or through a batter. It can also be added directly to the blender, mixer or mincer.

Green tea extract contains as much as 40 percent of the antioxidants classified as catechins, half of which are highly effective epigallocatechin gallate. It also contains an array of other chemicals with antioxidant activities. This includes gallic acid, carotenoids, tocopherols, ascorbic acid and minerals such as chromium, manganese, selenium and zinc.

Acerola cherry extract (Malpighia emarginata) is also 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 the antioxidant vitamin C. Acerola extract blends delay lipid and myoglobin oxidation, delaying color loss and maintaining the quality of meat products. When used with rosemary and green tea extracts, acerola is more effective at delaying discoloration than either extract alone.