Consumers have spoken. You may disagree with what they are saying, but they have spoken, nonetheless. They have decided that they want clean-label products, with easy-to-pronounce, recognizable ingredients. They want nitrite-free, nitrate-free, GMO-free, allergen-free products. Granted, this does not refer to all consumers, and nitrite does have an important role to play in the production of cured meats.  

Those statements aside, the clean-label consumer represents a growing part of the retail market, and meat processors are introducing “all-natural” and “organic” varieties of their products every day. The production of a nitrite-free product doesn’t simply mean leaving it out of the recipe. Changing one part of a recipe often leads to further changes to create a product with the same taste and characteristics.

When a processor is considering removing nitrite (or nitrate, in rarer cases), they have to first consider why the ingredient was present to begin with. If the product is something that is typically cured, like a ham or bacon, then there are labeling changes to consider, explains, Jeff Sindelar, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Those products must be labeled as “uncured” and must specifically state that they do not contain nitrite or nitrate.

“That labeling also has to include specific additional information on the principal display panel regarding how that product should be handled, simply to confirm that the product is different, and there are possible food safety implications because of that,” he says. That additional information should contain a message that the product must be refrigerated.

If nitrite is removed from a product, it needs to be replaced with something that is more consumer-friendly but just as effective in curing the meat. Celery powder is a common substitute. Commercial celery powder is produced from celery that is grown in a controlled environment, where high amounts of nitrogen are presented to it, Sindelar explains. The nitrogen is converted to nitrate during its growth. The celery is harvested, processed and fermented, which converts as much nitrate as possible to nitrite. The product is then dried, stabilized and sold.

When using celery powder, the processor must be aware of several factors. Cost is a drawback to the product, for one.

“It’s a fairly expensive ingredient and is much more expensive than the sodium nitrite – we’re talking pennies versus dollars per pound,” says Sindelar.

Celery powder also contains nitrite at a reduced concentration than sodium nitrite, so more of it must be used. It can lead to a greenish tint or an otherwise altered color on the finished product. It could also affect the taste.

“Only about 2-1/2 to 3 percent of the celery powder is nitrite, and the rest is celery, so you are adding celery seasoning that has a high concentration of nitrite to the product,” he adds. “You can have some celery flavoring that will contribute to the overall flavor profile. Making some adjustments to different spices or the level of spices can help offset some of that.”

Sindelar says it is important to remember that curing is a two-ingredient process – nitrite needs a cure accelerator. Traditionally, processors would use sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbade. In a clean label product, a suitable cure accelerator to celery powder is cherry powder.

“The active ingredient in cherry powder is ascorbic acid, which is a cure accelerator,” Sindelar says, adding that cherry powder is so concentrated that it will not affect the flavor of the product like celery powder can.