While many consumers are fascinated with celebrity chefs and cooking channels, the reality is that when the dinner hour approaches, time becomes sparse. Simple, quick and convenient, that’s what home cooks are looking for when meat and poultry are being served. This may come in the form of properly trimmed whole muscle cuts ready for the grill, fully cooked heat-and-eat formats designed for easy plating or ready-to-eat chilled products that welcome a simple side and garnish.

Regardless of form, succulent and flavorful are paramount. No one wants a dried-out piece of protein, unless, of course, it’s jerky. That’s why many processors enhance meat and poultry through water-binding ingredients.

Enhanced meat and poultry products are often fresh, whole muscle cuts injected with a solution of water and other ingredients, namely salt and phosphates. Sometimes antioxidants are added to extend freshness. Herbs, spices and flavors may be included to add some zest.

Processed meat products may get enhanced, too. This includes comminuted products such as sausages, patties and nuggets. These products may be designed to be cooked by the consumer, or sold fully cooked with the intent for warming to a safe temperature by the consumer.

Fully cooked luncheon meats also benefit from moisture enhancement, as their lengthy packaged shelf life may result in loss of juices. Packaged ham or turkey swimming in its juices is not appealing to most shoppers.

A functional purpose

Moisture binders enhance the ability of protein fibers to bond with water. This tenderizes the meat and increases its weight, thus improving yield and contributing to positive economics for the processor.

Products most suitable for moisture-enhancing ingredients are those that tend to have high purge losses, high cooking losses and those high in fat, as the fat may melt and drain away, leading to pronounced dryness, explains Kurt Villwock, director of research and development, Fiberstar Inc., River Falls, Wisconsin.

When it comes to whole muscle, enhanced meats make it easier for the home cook to be successful. Due to food safety concerns, many consumers tend to overcook poultry and pork. Enhanced meats won’t dry out too quickly, even when overcooked.

“Enhancement allows for the meat to be cooked to the proper temperature – and above by most consumers – and still be moist and pleasurable to eat, compared to unmarinated whole muscle that would be perceived as tough and dried out when cooked to the same food safe temperatures,” says Steven Gumeny, Regional Products Manager Rice Ingredients & Functional Proteins, Beneo, Parsippany, New Jersey.

With fully cooked products, enhancement may improve ease-of-use and visual appeal.

“Water binders improve sliceability in deli meats by increasing firmness, which enables faster slicing and a higher percentage of intact slices,” says Garrett McCoy, manager-research and development, Corbion, Lenexa, Kansas.

Kate Leahy, spokesperson for Sunsweet Ingredients/Sunsweet Growers, Yuba City, California, explains that the goal of a binder is to hold in the juices. No one wants to see the moisture swimming around in the meat package. That is juice that should be bound in the protein.

“Most binders do that,” she says. “They are not intended to add volume.”

Potato starches tend to be larger granules than other starch sources. Source: Ingredion

A toolbox of options

There are many moisture-enhancing ingredients in the marketplace. Use, including forms and addition levels, is regulated by the US Dept. of Agriculture.

Before selecting an ingredient system, a product developer should determine if there are any labeling restrictions, e.g., organic, natural, uncured, etc., as well as the target finished product moisture content after cooking and over shelf life. These factors will narrow down options.

Adding phosphates is a common and effective way to bind moisture in meat processing. Phosphates raise the pH of the meat, which causes the protein fibers to unfold and open up the protein structure. Once the protein structure is open, phosphates and water bind with protein molecules.

“Sodium phosphates are outstanding in terms of improving water binding and are widely used across the industry,” McCoy says. “But a lot of consumers don’t like to see phosphates listed on the ingredient label, so they are not considered an option for ‘clean label’ products.

“Carrageenan, which is a seaweed extract, is sometimes used in clean-label items, although it is not well understood by consumers either,” he adds. “A variety of starches and fibers offer simpler labeling and they do help bind water and improve cook yield but depending on the application, may produce overly soft textures.”

Corbion offers a proprietary blend of vinegar and citrus fiber that delivers excellent cook yield improvement, as well as shelf life extension and pathogen control, according to McCoy.

“We have also been seeing very promising results from another proprietary clean-label blend for moisture retention and texture improvement that we believe will prove to be a viable alternative to phosphates,” he says. “The prototype actually goes further than phosphate, in that it also provides strong antioxidant activity for prolonging shelf life.”

In terms of more conventional solutions, Corbion offers lactate-diacetate blends. These include either sodium or potassium components that provide multiple benefits, including improvements in cook yield, texture, shelf life and pathogen control.

Fiberstar offers a range of clean-label functionalized citrus fiber ingredients for use in meat and poultry. The fibers come in different particle sizes, and thus exert varying functions.

“The fine grade products are made for injections. Though they have high oil and water binding capacity, the particles are very low viscosity and fine enough to easily pass through injection systems without plugging filters or needles,” says Brock Lundberg, division president of research and development. “The coarser product lines are more suited for ground and emulsified meat products. They help prevent dry texture by lowering the rate of evaporation, for example, which may occur when held for extended time on a steam table or under a heat lamp.”

Typical usage rates for Fiberstar’s citrus fiber ingredients are in the range of 0.4 percent. The impact of adding 0.4 percent citrus fiber to the product is a 4 percent to 5 percent increase in yield.

“Due to its high-water holding capacity, additional moisture can often be added to the formulation,” Lundberg says. “The amount of additional water that can be added depends on the amount of free water already in the product before citrus fiber gets added. Our products hold in the range of 7 to 21 times their weight in moisture.”

Minneapolis-based Cargill offers a range of moisture management ingredients, including starches – both modified and native – as well as versatile textured soy flours that mimic the eating texture of a ground meat particle, according to Melissa Machen, senior technical account manager.

“Hot dog formulations typically include a modified food starch to control package purge over a long, refrigerated shelf life,” Machen says. “The allowed amount of food starch is 3.5 percent maximum in the finished product, with most processors in the 1.5 to 2.5 percent range.”

Cooked chicken breast is a popular lean and healthy source of protein and today comes in many formats in packaged prepared foods. Think salad kits, multi-compartment snack packs and seasoned chicken chunk pouches.

Because of its neutral color and bland flavor, native waxy rice starch is often used in chicken breast marinades.

“The breast meat may come from different-sized birds, resulting in muscle with different water-holding capacities,” Machen says. “The challenge is to provide a consistent finished product from potentially inconsistent raw material. Modified food starch or carrageenan can help accomplish this goal.”

Beneo supplies clean-label native waxy rice starch for moisture enhancement. It improves yields in both phosphate and phosphate-free products. In a phosphate-free system for chicken, rice starch increased yield seven percentage points higher than the control, and up to two percentage points greater than a sample containing potato starch, according to Gumeny. In a phosphate-containing system, the addition of rice starch made a greater impact.

“Here rice starch delivered improved yields of eighteen percentage points over the control sample,” he says. “This compared to only eight percentage points on the sample containing potato starch and four percentage points on the poultry containing carrageenan.”

These benefits are due to the structure of amylopectin and its ratio to amylose in rice starch. The configuration ensures that there is very low retrogradation, enabling water retention to be maintained after the poultry has been packed.

Ingredion, Westchester, Illinois, offers a range of modified and clean-label starches, flours and gums, including organic options. Base materials include corn, rice and potato, and are application dependent.

“We have data supporting that our clean-label starches can achieve similar results as phosphate and can be used for clean-label phosphate replacement projects, though the combination of starch and phosphate achieves even higher yield results,” says Samuel Hormel, senior technologist and technical services.

He cautions that when adding water binders to meat and poultry, start out at a lower use level and then slowly increase addition, as needed, to the maximum allowed. If starch and gum levels are too high in a product, then it can start to create an undesirable gummy gel on the surface or within the product, depending on processing.

Ingredients made of prune plums offer clean-label, plant-based binders. They work by binding water to meat protein fibers with the help of sorbitol and pectin.

“A prune plum contains up to 17 percent sorbitol, a slow-metabolizing sugar alcohol that is also hygroscopic, helping to attract moisture,” Leahy says. “Fresh plum concentrate can be added to a brine or marinade and then injected into or vacuum-tumbled with whole-muscle meat. Dried plum powder can be massaged on the exterior of whole-muscle meat to reduce purge. The same powder, as well as dried plum puree, can be added to burgers or sausages for moisture binding, too. All of the ingredients not only bind moisture but also boost flavor, inhibit warmed over flavor and lower sodium.”

Most moisture-enhancing ingredients are multi-functional, which is why it’s not a one-size-fits-all product development platform. Knowing your end-product goals is critical for success.