The three major functional ingredients areas — salt, sodium nitrate and lactates such as sodium lactates and sodium diacetate — have the biggest impact on food safety, shelf life and product quality. They are the classic tools in the meat processor’s toolbox, says Dana Hanson, associate professor of food science in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences for North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

“Those are probably the biggest three by far that are the most widely used and have the biggest impact for the cost,” he explains.

The challenge with these widely used, highly functional ingredients is consumer perception and consumer clean label demands. For example, sodium levels in products are being reduced to meet consumers’ healthier product demands.

“It’s important to never underestimate the functionality of salt, and in that it has such a big impact not only as an antimicrobial, but with protein functionality, texture building and protein extraction as well as flavor,” Hanson says.

As for sodium nitrate, it’s a preservative that’s being removed as processors opt to manufacture natural cured and uncured products. “Still, again for the cost, there are no other ingredients than salt and nitrate that can extend shelf life longer than those two ingredients in combination,” Hanson explains.

As far as new functional ingredient technologies available, Hanson emphasizes that it is well documented that superior sanitation in a plant and superior cold chain management will dwarf any advantages and shelf life extension that a processor could achieve with any ingredient addition.

That being said, processors continue to meet consumer demands by moving to clean label functional ingredients. Many of them have shown to improve quality and safety, but at a higher cost than conventional functional ingredients. For example, while sodium nitrate and celery powder function similarly, sodium nitrate is synthetic and celery powder, which is processed and not derived from organic or natural celery, is allowed in natural and organic meat and poultry products.

Additionally, new developments in functional ingredient technologies such as bacteria phages continue to show promise. Phages can be used to target a specific pathogenic organism, such as Salmonella. Phage control is being used across food processing industries, but efficacy concerns still persist as controlled lab results often don’t reflect actual plant processing environments.

Going forward, Hanson believes processors will need to monitor raw material quality as farmers receive more restrictions on feeds and other technologies. This could prompt processors to use more functional ingredients to recapture product quality and safety, he explains.  IP