There’s a great deal of confusion about the term “natural” when it comes to food and beverage marketing, as product developers have been given very little

Hot Dogs

guidance from federal authorities regarding its use. At best, the FDA disqualifies some ingredients from being called natural, as they have been deemed artificial or synthetic.

The meat industry is a step above many others, as USDA provides this definition as it pertains to meat: A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. 

As a scientist, I find it very confusing that marketers of uncured hot dogs will label them as natural, but meat manufacturers who inject a roast with a marinade based on ingredients derived from nature will stay away from the term. I have no desire to debate the term or its use, but I would like to provide some facts about the use of phosphates in meat products — fresh and processed, cooked and raw.

From ore to ingredient

For starters, phosphorus is No. 15 on the Periodic Table of Elements. It plays a major role in the human metabolic system, including bone growth and health, and energy-transfer systems. (Remember adenosinetriphosphate, or simply ATP, from high school biology?) This is why phosphorus is an essential mineral, one we need quite a bit of. The Daily Value is 1 gram per day.

One of the ways we obtain our daily requirement is by consuming foods naturally high in phosphorus, such as dairy, legumes, meat and nuts. Another source is the phosphate ingredients used in all types of foods, from baking to beverage to beef.

Phosphate ingredients are typically available as salts and produced by neutralization of phosphoric acid with a metal element such as calcium, potassium and, most commonly, sodium. Phosphoric acid (one phosphorus atom with four oxygen atoms) is made from phosphorus ore by a variety of methods, all of which rely on both chemical and physical processing. Remember, we need phosphorus in our diet and we cannot eat ore. Processing is necessary to turn inedible ore into a functional and nutritional food ingredient.

Why add it to meat?

By adding phosphates during the mixing or grinding of processed meats or the injection or tumbling of fresh, raw products, manufacturers hope to achieve a number of results. The most desirable is retention of moisture, which equates to higher yield. Phosphates can also preserve color and flavor, improve juiciness, assist with freeze/thaw stability and reduce oxidation, thereby extending shelf life.

Phosphates are frequently added to curing solutions and cured product formulations, as in addition to the benefits already identified, the water-retention attribute reduces shrinkage (moisture loss) and purge (cook-out) of fermented and cured comminuted products during further processing. Phosphates also improve the stability and uniformity of the cure color.

Encased meat emulsions, such as bologna and hot dogs, must maintain integrity during processing and cooking. Phosphates can enhance stability by influencing viscosity and pH, as well as assisting with protein extraction so that when cooked, the protein readily coagulates to form a gel that stabilizes the encased meat’s matrix. Pyro (two phosphate units) and tripolyphosphates (three units) extract soluble protein molecules from meat the best.

In conclusion

FDA has not labeled phosphate ingredients as natural or artificial. Further, USDA allows approved phosphates to be collectively labeled as sodium phosphates or potassium phosphates, instead of using complex chemicals names. Marketers must decide for themselves just how natural it is to improve the quality of meat.

And here’s one last point to ponder. Phosphates help control acid-based balance in mammals. Some say that the addition of phosphates returns meat to its natural state after the animal has been slaughtered, because food-grade phosphates can duplicate the function of an animal’s native ATP. Is that natural or supernatural?