Key Ingredient

Decades after its first meat and poultry applications, phosphate remains a remarkably flexible and effective addition to both processed and fresh meats.
In meat science, chemistry is just as important of a subject as the biology or anatomy of a given species. How proteins interact with certain compounds can have a significant impact on the taste, texture, and appearance of the final product.
One case in point is the use of food-grade phosphates in meat and poultry. By adding phosphates during the mixing or grinding of processed meats or the injection or tumbling of fresh products, meat and poultry processors hope to achieve a variety of results, from retaining moisture to changing viscosity to stabilizing other ingredients.
For a quick chemistry lesson, phosphates are considered salts of phosphoric acid. More technically, phosphates are polyatomic ions or radicals consisting of one phosphorus atom and four oxygen atoms.
Within the phosphate family, different forms of the compound, including monophosphates, diphosphates (also known as pyrophosphates), and polyphosphates, are applied to processed and fresh meat and poultry, depending on the product and the desired function. Meanwhile, each category includes several phosphate forms available for food use.
Pluses of phosphates
An important part of the body system — for humans, not to mention species like cattle, hogs, and broiler chickens — phosphates help control acid-based balance. That body balance is one reason that phosphates have been used for decades in meat and poultry. The general notion is that the addition of phosphates returns meat or poultry to its natural state after an animal has been slaughtered, because food-grade phosphates can duplicate the function of an animal’s native adenosinetriphosphate (ATP).
“What you are trying to do in a meat system is to take the muscle back to its original form as a live animal. You take that phosphate that you lost through rigor, and the more constantly you can bring it up the more moisture you will hold during the cook process so that meat will be of higher quality and texture,” explains Larry Guerin, technical services manager for Gallard-Schlesinger Industries Inc., Plainview, NY, a supplier of a range of phosphates for food and industrial use and a subsidiary of the German firm Budenheim.
Rosaleen Doherty, business development manager for Cranbury, NJ-based Innophos Inc.  — previously known as Rhodia Food Ingredients before a recent acquisition by Bain Capital — offers a further explanation. “Pyro and tripoly phosphates extract soluble proteins from the meat. This helps processed meat products retain the juiciness, flavor, and mouthfeel associated with freshly cooked meat even when the meat is overcooked,” she notes. “Polyphosphates mimic ATP to enable the soluble protein interaction between adjacent meat proteins.”
Beyond their ATP replacement effect, phosphates rank among the most versatile of food ingredients. “They offer pH correction, disassociate the actomyosin structure, re-associate the ATP, and they offer protection from oxidation,” explains Jim Anderson, technical manager for major phosphate and phosphate specialty supplier BK Giulini Corporation, a German company with North American offices in Simi Valley, CA. “Phosphates also offer other functional attributes like better flavor via higher moisture levels in meat, compatibility with other ingredients, and they can create positive environments in which to create new products.”
Robert Rust, an industry consultant and professor emeritus at Iowa State University, Ames, IA, has worked with phosphates since the 1950s and agrees that they offer a host of benefits. “One is the water-binding capability, which is undisputed and really significant. Another is phosphates’ ability to improve the stability of meat emulsions. A third attribute is the ability to reduce oxidation rancidity that has to do with prevention of warmed-over taste,” Rust says.
The versatility of phosphates also makes them useful on a practical level for food manufacturers. “They are multi-functional — one product can do all these different things, which makes it a product of choice,” points out Barbara B. Heidolph, market development manager for Astaris LLC, St. Louis, MO, which offers phosphate technology solutions for a variety of industries. Adds Guerin: “Phosphates are the most cost-effective additive you can use in any process.”
Misunderstood ingredient
For all of their benefits, however, phosphates remain rather misunderstood ingredients. “Consumers may get confused and read a label with phosphate or sodium phosphate and think, ‘Isn’t this stuff bad, and why is it here in my meat?’” notes Heidolph.
Anderson also believes that phosphates may be misunderstood by some. “Without question, phosphates are the most pervasively-used yet least-understood ingredient in the meat and poultry industry,” he remarks, adding that although properly phosphated products are preferred by consumers by a nearly two-to-one margin, many people don’t understand them. “A few view phosphates as a preservative or as a potential ingestion danger — neither of which is the case. Phosphates are essential for life, and their innocuous nature is clear by their extensive use in baby formulas and health-food products.”
Guerin also expresses frustration with those who make assumptions about phosphates without understanding their makeup or function.
“When people think phosphates are bad for them, they don’t realize they’ve been around for centuries. There is nothing in it but actual phosphate,” he points out. “They are also very essential to the health and well being of all mammals. It is in the food we eat, and this is how our bodies get it into the system.”
The meat mix
However they may be perceived, phosphates remain a remarkably effective addition to meat and poultry products. Meat scientists and manufacturers first noted the positive benefits of the naturally occurring compounds during the 1940s and 1950s, when formulators experimented with adding polyphosphates to processed meats and sausage. “For many years, phosphates have been used in the United States to improve water-holding capacity of whole-muscle cooked products, such as hams, corned beef, and turkey breasts. A little over twenty years ago, USDA approved the use of phosphates for sausage products as well,” explains Lynn Knipe, extension processed meats specialist at The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, and an expert on phosphates.
In the past few years, phosphates have moved beyond the processed-meat category and are now being used in fresh-meat products of all species.
“Today, phosphates are also commonly used in solutions injected into fresh pork, beef loins, and other uncured roasts to provide a juicier product with the perception of greater tenderness. These products are referred to as ‘enhanced’ products,’” relays Knipe.
Depending on the product, the type and application method of phosphates varies. For processed meats, phosphates are typically added in dry form during the blending process, in a chopper, grinder, or mixer, along with other ingredients. For enhanced meats, phosphates are incorporated to a solution or marinade that is applied via injection, tumbling, or other similar method. Government regulations mandate usage levels for phosphates are not to exceed 0.5 percent, although usage levels for blends may differ depending on the formulation.
Variety of products
Different suppliers, of course, specialize in certain types of phosphates. Gallard-Schlesinger, for example, recommends the company’s Abastol and Carnal diphosphates for meat and poultry to ensure that the end product does not get dry and stringy but stays moist and carries the flavor of the product. Astaris, meanwhile, offers sodium tripolyphosphate blends, some of which are fast-dissolving, and has recently experienced greater demand for low-sodium phosphate blends marketed under the Nutrifos 100 brand.
BK Guilini has developed a line of specialty phosphate agglomerates marketed under the company’s Brifisol® and Bekaplus® brands, that work to overcome the limited functionality of some traditional forms, relays Anderson, who cites an example of a current problem-solving application.
“One that comes to mind is case ready (meats), a particularly challenging venue. The meat is treated, then packed, shipped, and displayed all while the protein is still in the raw state for up to two weeks,” he says. “Specialty phosphates offer better purge protection, better color development, and stability, while providing improved flavor characteristics even in this most stressful environment.”
New phosphate technologies are being developed regularly, in fact. Innophos recently launched Curafos® Optibind, a premium phosphate blend designed to achieve moisture and protein binding for deli turkey, rotisserie chicken, chucked and formed ham, chicken rolls, and beef strips, among other applications.
Other recent advancements have centered on the dissolvability of phosphates in water. The Flavex Protein Ingredients division of Cranford, NJ-based Arnhem Group, for example, has successfully launched Curegel 150 for use in whole-muscle cuts and sausage products. A multi-functional protein hydrolysate approved by USDA in the flavoring category, Curegel 150 is cold-water soluble, which results in a more uniform dispersion. “A lot of phosphates don’t have that attribute. They don’t disperse properly in a brine solution and sink to the bottom,” notes president Mike Bonner, adding that the product also can be formulated in any cooked or uncooked meat or poultry product in which flavorings are permitted.
Astaris now offers a specialty phosphate product for easier dispersion as well. “You want to make sure that a phosphate is dissolved before adding any other ingredients. Our Nutrifos BC will dissolve in a brine,” says Rick Bosch, marketing technical service fellow, adding that the company also offer blends that are hard water compatible.
For its part, Innopohos, now markets a BrineSolve product that dissolves in the presence of salt and reduces the chance for the buildup of undissolved phosphate. “BrineSolve also gives spice and seasoning blenders an opportunity to prepare everything they need to season and marinate a chicken breast in one package,” adds Doherty.
When it comes to emerging trends, innovations are likely to occur more on the application side than on the technology side, says Heidolph. “It’s been more about a shift in focus based on the needs of the marketplace. And in terms of the customers’ new products, it’s about figuring out what is right for that application,” she observes.
Facing challenges
Finally, despite the much-touted benefits of phosphates, there are some challenges in processing with such substances. “Using phosphates at too high of a level, particularly in mildly spiced meat products can cause a soapy, metallic flavor. For rapidly processed products, alkaline phosphates can slow the curing reaction, resulting in a paler finished product color,” points out Knipe.
Other potential issues center on the proper use of phosphates. “One of the problems with phosphate is using it correctly, particular if using it as a curing pickle,” says Rust.
Anderson of BK Giulini cites similar drawbacks to incorrect usage. “The biggest challenge in phosphate applications is found in the assumption that one type phosphate can cover all applications. This, coupled with solubility issues with both commodity phosphates and ancillary ingredients, commonly result in less than full phosphate functionality,” he notes. NP
Technology providers participating in this article include:
•  Astaris LLC, phone (314) 983-7674 or (800)244-6169, fax (314) 983-7636, or visit
• BK Giulini Corporation, phone (805) 581-1979 or (800) 526-2688, fax (8805) 581-2139, e-mail, or visit
• Flavex Protein Ingredients, a division of the Arnhem Group, phone (908) 709-4045 or (800) 851-1052, fax (908) 709) 9221,e-mail, or visit
• Gallard-Schlesinger Industries inc., phone (800) 645-3044, fax (516) 683-6990, or e-mail
• Innophos Inc. (previously known as Rhodia Food Ingredients), phone William N. Farran at (609) 860-3425, or visit