FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Researchers have discovered that vegetable-juice powder could provide a natural source of nitrate to serve as a curing agent meat and still be classified as a natural source, according to Joe Sebranek, Iowa State University a distinguished professor of animal science, food science and human nutrition. Yet, there still wouldn’t be as much nitrite in the product as in a conventionally cured product and it would be at greater risk from bacterial pathogens.

Although consumer desires for natural and organic food products includes cured pork products, such as hams, bacon and frankfurters, such products can’t be labeled as natural or organic if they contain preservatives. As a result, two traditional pork curing agents – nitrite and nitrate – aren’t allowed in natural and organic products.

Sebranek researched the challenge with support from the Food Safety Consortium and discovered a solution. Take several natural antimicrobial ingredients – vinegar with lactate and vinegar with lemon powder – and incorporate them into the naturally cured pork products. As a result, bacterial pathogens, such asListeria monocytogenesin the naturally cured pork products, were inhibited, though still not to an equivalent level as in conventionally cured pork products.

“With natural and organic products, you’re limited to ingredients that qualify as natural or organic, respectively,” Sebranek said. “If you use something that is traditionally used as a preservative, that’s not permitted in a natural product. With a naturally fermented vinegar product, you have a mixture of organic acids. It’s not typically used as a preservative, but it provides some of the organic acids that are recognized antimicrobials. There’s a mixture in that kind of a product that essentially provides a preservative effect.”

Other natural antimicrobial ingredients will be examined by ISU researchers to determine what would also be effective. There have already been some interesting results with cranberry extracts, Sebranek said.

“Cranberry has a number of antioxidants and potential antimicrobial compounds,” he added. “We’re trying to get that more specifically identified. There are a number of different kinds of extracts and compounds that are natural, which is the first thing that’s necessary. Maybe you could combine enough antimicrobials to get you back to the same level of protection against pathogens as with the conventionally cured product. That would be our ultimate goal.”

If the research leads to something that’s economical, there would be potential practical application at the industrial level. “And things like cranberry are an attractive kind of label addition, too,” Sebranek concluded.