Proteins that can enhance health and wellness are becoming more valuable shopper magnets.

With an increasingly large base of consumers looking for foods they perceive to be nutritious, safe and environmentally sound, merchandisers are strengthening their array of products that carry a health halo.

It makes the prospect of adding spices and seasonings that have antimicrobial and antioxidant benefits to meats increasingly attractive.

While a major obstacle to widespread consumer acceptance is ensuring proteins with such ingredients have appealing tastes and aromas, shopper demand for healthy meals is keeping that prospect in the spotlight.

“Activity is being pulled more by consumers than pushed by the meat producers,” says Guy Crosby, adjunct associate professor in the department of nutrition at the Harvard University School of Public Health, in Cambridge, Mass. “Many producers are reluctant to add ingredients that will flavor the meat because of concerns that the bulk of shoppers won’t buy it.”

A long-term project

The key issue is incorporating elements that are strong enough to combat bacteria without making the meat unappetizing.

“If all the criteria can be met, spices and seasonings would sweep through the industry,” says Don Schaffner, professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J. “But they must be truly effective against microorganisms, be cost effective and not produce undesirable flavors.”

Adding spices and seasonings to meats while maintaining sensory appeal has been a longtime aim of developers. Schaffner notes food scientists have examined the issue for more than 20 years and “we’re still looking for that magic bullet.”

“Taste is holding us back,” he says. “The levels of spices that are needed to get true antimicrobial and antioxidant effectiveness often makes the meats unpalatable.”

Crosby says only a relatively small number of spices and seasonings are effective as antioxidants and antimicrobials and/or protect against rancidity. They include garlic, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, oregano and thyme.

In addition, rosemary and sage are active antioxidant extracts that are often used as natural preservatives, says Jin Ji, chief technology officer and executive vice president at Brunswick Laboratories Inc., a Southborough, Mass.-based bioanalytical testing and research lab serving the food, nutrition and nutraceutical industries.

A major issue for meat producers and merchandisers is matching the optimal spices and seasonings with specific products, she says.

“The spices and seasonings must interact positively with other food ingredients,” Ji says. “There also must be readily available supplies, and the items have to meet the economic requirements of merchandisers.”

Betsy Booren, president of the Washington, D.C.-based North American Meat Institute (NAMI) Foundation, agrees, adding that other considerations include how the spices affect the color, binding capabilities and taste of the proteins.

“All those aspects have to be examined when spices and seasonings are being put in products,” she says.

Passing the food safety test

The performance of natural antimicrobial ingredients on meats was part of a 2013 study funded by the NAMI Foundation. The tests at Iowa State University also included post-lethality interventions in an effort to inhibit the recovery and growth of Listeria monocytogenes on naturally cured, ready-to-eat frankfurters and boneless hams.

Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of such antimicrobials as 1 percent cranberry powder, 1 percent vinegar and 2.5 percent vinegar and lemon juice concentrate. Post-lethality interventions were high hydrostatic pressure and post-packaging thermal treatments.

The testers report that selected natural antimicrobial ingredients and post-lethality interventions currently available to manufacturers of natural and organic ready-to-eat processed meats are effective at addressing the potential presence of Listeria monocytogenes on such products. They add that the work further substantiates the effectiveness of a multiple hurdle approach for the control of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat processed meat products.

“It is incredibly important for meat processors to ensure that consumers have a safe eating experience each time,” Booren says. “But taste also is very important because that is what drives consumers to buy meats. There is a need for the highest food-safety standards, but if an item doesn’t taste good, the consumer won’t purchase it again.”

She says more shoppers are studying product labels and seeking spices, seasonings and other elements that accentuate health and wellness.

Schaffner says a key driver for including health-oriented spices and seasonings in meats is the need to meet the expectation of consumers who desire limited amounts of additives and preservatives in their foods.

“Many consumers don’t want to see anything on the label that they cannot pronounce,” he says. “Even though the ingredients on food labels that read like an alphabet soup of chemicals are safe, many shoppers still don’t want them.”

Ji concurs, noting more consumers want to replace conventional synthetic preservatives with natural spices and seasonings.

“Ingredients that function as preservatives are crucial in the meat industry as the elements improve shelf life, aroma, taste and other aspects of the products,” she says. “But many shoppers think that anything synthetic is unhealthy and socially irresponsible. The nutritional benefits provided by the natural antioxidant and antimicrobial spices and seasonings are attractive.”

A host of hurdles

Still another potential obstacle to the use of spices and seasonings as antimicrobials is the need to leverage ingredients with the necessary potency. 

Jeff Sindelar, extension meat specialist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, says while many spices and seasonings have antimicrobial and antioxidant functions, most are not strong enough to produce measureable benefits.

Among the exceptions is the antioxidant function in rosemary extract, a spice that has a high concentration of carnosic acid, he says.

Adding to the challenge of incorporating effective elements in meats is the lack of cooperation among food developers, says Schaffner.

“The real benefits come when the different players in the industry collaborate with each other to find solutions,” he says. “The problem is that every company wants to be the first out with products and they don’t want to share their findings with competitors. Many food scientists also are not publishing the results of their efforts and it is hard to determine what they are up to.”

A key objective for many of the scientists is determining how to include the necessary spices and seasonings in proteins without compromising taste and aroma.

“There are lots of volatile aromatic flavors,” Crosby says. “Meats need ingredients that enhance flavor as well as antimicrobial activities. Otherwise, the effort to include spices in protein is not going to be worthwhile.”

He notes that because relatively few spices and seasonings meet both sensory and antimicrobial demands, neighborhood supermarket butchers, rather than large-scale meat producers, are more likely to incorporate the ingredients in proteins.

Such operators, he says, are able to target specific shopper segments that value health over taste, and the retailers can carry smaller amounts of proteins with spices and seasonings in addition to more traditional varieties of meats.

“It will be good for supermarkets to try out the spices because it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to see if they will be effective,” Crosby says. “The retailers can then gauge if the public will respond. The market for spices and seasonings in meat is limited. But consumers do want their meat to be safer.”

A more common use, he adds, will be the incorporation of ingredients with antimicrobial and antioxidant benefits in recipes that typically contain other spices and seasonings, such as ground beef that is used in spaghetti sauce and chili, as well as dishes from Latin America, South America, India and the Mediterranean.

Yet, while the right mix of spices and seasonings can result in a healthier eating experience, integrating the ingredients into proteins also creates an element of risk.

Some spices, for instance, may be carriers of microorganisms with bacteria forming when the spices are moist and harvested. Such elements limit the pool of potential ingredients for proteins.

“Many spices have to be fumigated or steamed to kill off the microorganisms,” Crosby says. “It is not a given that an herb or spice can be used with meats.”

Staying the course

Nevertheless, the benefits of safer and healthier meats are motivating food developers to search for the most effective ingredients and methodologies.

Schaffner notes, for instance, that more producers are looking to incorporate spices and seasonings in meats while also using high-pressure processing to kill Listeria.

Most progress by protein producers, however, will occur incrementally, he says.

“Breakthroughs are overrated,” Schaffner says. “Science doesn’t work that way.”

Still, many shoppers will be monitoring advancements, Ji says.

“Science-backed products will have better traction as consumers are getting more and more sophisticated and focusing on healthy products with supporting evidence,” she says. “Clinical and pre-clinical studies are in high demand for proving the products’ effectiveness.”

A shopper preference for natural antioxidant ingredients, because of skepticism about the effects of synthetic food additives on health, also will remain, she says.

“The market for natural antioxidants and antimicrobials is strong,” Ji says. “The driving force is educated consumers who are focusing on healthy products and clean, familiar labels.”

Ji adds that the availability of high-quality and effective spices and seasonings will be dependent on such factors as the harvest levels of producers, extraction efficiency and purification, and whether it is economically feasible to develop the items.

To be a useful meat component, the ingredient also cannot compromise product stability, solubility and the sensory properties of proteins when interacting with other ingredients, she notes.

Regardless of the rate of scientific advancements, Sindelar says there will always be interest by producers in identifying antioxidants and antimicrobials that can function more productively.

“That activity won’t be slowing down or dwindling,” he says. “But it will always be challenged by the cost aspect and if the ingredients are better or cheaper than what currently exists.”

There remains great potential in the use of spices and seasonings in meats to enhance food safety. While a variety of issues must be resolved if the practice is to become widespread, including ensuring the ingredients are not compromising the taste and aroma of the proteins, shopper interest in health and wellness will spur producers to keep their eye on the prize.