Pre-packaged meat cases continue to make room for the growing number of uncured charcuterie entering the marketplace. From bacon and ham to pepperoni and salami, clean-label shoppers are attracted to these uncured products, as curing salts — nitrates and nitrites — have grown to have a negative connotation. For starters, they are lethal in large doses. They also have been shown to create carcinogenic substances in the body, hence the reason they are on Whole Foods Market’s unacceptable ingredient list.

Interestingly, when nitrates and nitrites are added to meat indirectly, as an inherent component of another ingredient rather than as a manufactured isolated ingredient, Whole Foods Market and many in the all-natural food community find this acceptable. It’s a regulatory loophole.

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 nitrites added” or “no nitrates added,” very label-friendly terminology. Natural curing is possible through the addition of plant extracts, some of which are natural sources of nitrates and nitrites. The most common plants are celery, spinach and Swiss chard. Because these are not “salts” like traditional curing agents, they may assist with sodium reduction.

Nitrates and nitrites produce desirable color in processed meats. They also are responsible for adding a zingy, tangy flavor. In some products, curing breaks down and tenderizes tough protein fibers, resulting in a compact yet tender texture. But the number-one reason for adding curing salts to meat and poultry is preservation. Curing prevents fats from going rancid, but most importantly, curing impedes the growth of harmful bacteria.

There are also true “uncured” ingredient options in the market. These are based on fruit and spice extracts that contain polyphenols and flavonoid antioxidants that fix the iron in the meat myoglobin and create cured color and flavor with no or very miniscule amounts of residual nitrites. These are often paired with all-natural food safety ingredients in order to assist with shelf life.  

Salami (Source: Hormel Foods)

About a year ago, Columbus Craft Meats, Hayward, California, launched a range of pre-sliced uncured antibiotic-free salami. They are made without added nitrates or nitrites, except for those naturally occurring in cultured celery juice powder. Offerings include uncured Italian dry salami made with California red wine and crushed peppercorns; uncured Genoa salami, a mild salami with hints of garlic; and uncured pepperoni, with spicy and smoky notes from paprika.

This summer, the company paired these salamis with cheese to participate in the growing category of snack packs. The Italian variety comes with white cheddar cheese. Genoa is paired with provolone, while pepperoni is teamed up with fontina.

Also, this summer, SunFed Ranch, Woodland, California, a leading 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished beef brand, launched a line of uncured natural 100 percent grass-fed beef hot dogs and sausages.

“Focusing intently on the needs of shoppers in our category, we created a great-tasting hot dog with the lowest sodium and highest protein in the market,” said Matt Byrne, co-founder and president of SunFed Ranch. “Those health attributes are important to us and our consumers as we curate new clean-ingredient product lines that are delicious, convenient and sustainable.”