With consumers shifting toward clean-label products, consumers also want fewer ingredients on the label. 

“This can be a challenge to the food industry to have an extended shelf-life,” says Ranjith Ramanathan, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater. “Recently, ingredients naturally present or names familiar to consumers with shelf-life extension capacity are used in meat and poultry.”

The industry also is rebranding some common ingredients in a more consumer-friendly fashion — dry vinegar and not acetic acid, for example. “Clearly it is all being driven by the perception of what consumers want,” says Jim Dickson, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University, in Ames.

In addition to consumer demands for natural ingredients, the natural ingredients that are growing are those that are successful at protecting flavor and increasing shelf life, says Wes Schilling, a professor in the Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion at Mississippi State University. Acerola cherry powder, oregano and rosemary are all very popular natural antioxidants. Vinegar and cultured dextrose are two common natural antimicrobials. Natural flavors including citrus extracts also are very popular because of their antimicrobial and antioxidant effects and viability as a phosphate substitute, Schilling explains. 

Currently, the greatest challenges to using natural shelf-life extenders is increasing costs and availability because of supply chain issues, Schilling says. “Companies need to have multiple sources and multiple product formulations with ingredient substitutions due to supply chain issues and the inability to obtain ingredients,” he says.

Additionally, natural ingredients are not always as exact in composition as most synthetically made ingredients, which causes greater variability in some finished products. 

“It is also difficult to obtain as long of a shelf life using natural shelf-life extenders as with synthetic ingredients alone,” Schilling says. “In addition, using synthetic shelf-life enhancers and natural shelf-life enhancers together will allow for the longest possible shelf life for products.”

Another challenge is that adding shelf-life extenders should not alter the quality of products. “There are several natural antioxidants with protective power,” Ramanathan says. “However, the addition of natural antioxidants may change the sensory properties. Hence, the level of antioxidants and antimicrobials needs to be standardized.” 

Dickson believes the biggest challenge is demonstrating that natural shelf-life extenders work, and work as well as some of the more traditional ingredients with “chemical-sounding” names. “The issue of uncured meat and poultry products, where we are substituting celery juice and other compounds which naturally contain nitrite for chemical nitrite, comes to mind,” he says. “Demonstrating that natural cures are equivalent to traditional cures is very important.”

Moving forward, Ramanathan thinks technology and packaging can play an important role in limiting the use of ingredients in meat and poultry. “Technology such as high-pressure processing or pulsated electric field can enhance shelf life,” he says. “The application of active packaging also helps to limit quality changes.”

Schilling thinks the industry will see greater emphasis of extending the shelf life of fresh meat that is portioned for use in other products. Those products will need ingredient, processing and packaging technologies to extend shelf life. Additionally, he expects growth in modified-atmosphere packaging and plastics, automation with fewer people handling products, and processing technologies such as pasteurization.

Dickson also expects a balance between ingredient and packaging technology and practical needs will develop. “For example, if we could use advances in formulation and packaging to create a sliced roast beef with a 12-month shelf life, do we really need a 12-month shelf life?” he asks. “Does our distribution system require a product like that to have a 12-month shelf life? I think that there may be some practical limits to this.”