Processed meats are a significant part of the explosive market growth occurring in natural and organic foods. The requirements for natural or organic marketing do not permit addition of nitrite or nitrate. Nitrite, whether added directly or derived from nitrate, is a unique, distinctive ingredient for which there is no substitute.
Consequently, process and product changes are necessary to produce natural or organic processed meats that provide the properties expected of traditional cured meat products. These process changes and the additional labelling requirements for these products have resulted in a category of processed meats that is confusing, and perhaps even misleading, to consumers. Further, quality and safety issues need careful examination in light of the processing changes introduced for natural and organic processed meats manufacturing.
The formulations for conventionallyâ€“cured meat products are characterised by the addition of nitrate and/or nitrite. Nitrite-meat mixtures are complex and highly reactive. Because nitrite, particularly as nitric oxide, so readily reacts with a wide variety of substrates, reaction kinetics may be an important determinant of how nitrite is proportioned among the wide array of competitive substrates and reaction products. Issues that have been raised concerning the safety of using nitrate and nitrite for curing meat have included chemical toxicity, formation of carcinogens in food or after ingestion, and reproductive and developmental toxicity. None of these issues represent relevant concerns for nitrate or nitrite in light of the current levels of use in processed meats.
Because of the negative perceptions of nitrite-cured meat held by some consumers, the "uncured" natural and organic versions of typical cured meats have enjoyed widespread market acceptance. Recent analyses of commercially available natural and organic products have shown there is wide variation among the natural and organic processed meats that simulate conventionally cured products, and a large majority of natural and organic processed meats demonstrate typical cured meat properties, including cured colour, flavour and significant concentrations of residual nitrite and nitrate. Thus, it is clear that nitrite and nitrate are being introduced to most of these products indirectly as components of other ingredients.
The quality characteristics expected of traditional cured meats that are unique to these products include the reddish-pink colour of cooked denatured nitrosylhemochrome, a flavour that is distinct from uncured products, and long-term flavour protection resulting from the strong antioxidant effect of nitrite on meat systems. If at least 50 ppm of nitrite is formed from nitrate during processing of meat products with natural nitrate sources, it appears that the typical quality characteristics expected of cured meat (colour, flavour, flavour stability) will be achieved. A question that is more difficult to answer is the long-term stability of those quality characteristics. It is important to keep in mind that packaging and environmental conditions, particularly temperature and exposure to light, are critical to long-term cured meat quality, and become more critical when residual nitrite is reduced.
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Article made possible through the contribution of American Meat Science Association.