This year I’ve been working on a series of posts about food labels and what they mean. In earlier posts, I talked about what the Natural label means on a meat package, but I get some questions about Uncured, Naturally Cured or processed meat products that are made without nitrate or nitrite.
I’ve covered this topic before in a post called ‘What is Nitrite?’, but I wanted to cover it again in the labeling series.Some processors want to create friendlier, less chemically labels and choose to remove nitrates. Also, when meat processors want to use the Natural or Organic labels, they are not allowed to add nitrites and nitrates as they are classified by the USDA as chemical preservatives.
What if you just removed these ingredients from natural products?
Just take it out. Problem solved.
Some processors do that, but without nitrite, deli ham would not be pink, it would basically be just a pork roast. Tasty meats like bacon and hotdogs wouldn’t have the same flavors we enjoy. And, most importantly, all of these products would be more susceptible to spoilage and the growth of dangerous bacteria. The nitrite helps them last longer on store shelves and in your refrigerator. Nitrite also makes them safer for you and your family.
So, removing it doesn’t work.
What is nitrite anyway and what is its purpose in meat?
Nitrite is added to processed meats like ham, bacon, and sausages (hotdogs, bologna, etc) for 4 reasons:
1. It prevents the growth of Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism). Botulism can shut down your nervous system and that’s not healthy. It also helps control other dangerous pathogens and bacteria that cause spoilage, so it helps keep meat safe.
2. It is a very powerful antioxidant and keeps the meat from going rancid. The fat in processed meat can get funky flavors if allowed to oxidize, and nitrite helps to keep that from happening. Ever notice why a package of ham can last for weeks in your fridge while leftovers go bad in a few days?
3. It gives cured meats their distinct pink color. The nitrite reacts with the muscle protein and changes it to pink, and it stays pink for a much longer time than fresh meat stays red.
4. It gives cured meats their distinct flavor. That unique “hammy” and smoky flavor of a ham or that unique bacon flavor in bacon comes from the nitrite.
|German researchers discovered that nitrite and |
not nitrate (curing cousins) was the form of
curing salt responsible for meat curing, and
started to exclusively use nitrite for curing.
Also, without nitrite, several products would completely lose their identity. The USDA has standards of identity that regulate what is a hot dog, bologna, or even bacon and nitrite is an important ingredient for making them what they are. Without it, they are no longer “cured.” This means bacon without nitrite would no longer be bacon, but would instead be cooked pork belly.
How do “Natural” and “Cured” coexist?
Even though, nitrate and nitrite are not allowed to be directly added to natural and organic labeled meat products, other ‘natural’ ingredients with high levels of naturally-occurring nitrate can be used to replace the synthetic forms.
Many vegetables contain high levels of naturally accumulating nitrate. In fact, the main human dietary source of nitrate isn’t processed meats, but actually green leafy vegetables like spinach and celery. When the nitrate is converted to nitrite, presto… meat curing can naturally happen.
Meat processors can use vegetable powder in processed meats as a source of nitrite to create the pink color and cured flavor. On the label, it may be listed as celery powder, flavoring, or natural flavoring. The nitrite derived from vegetables and found in vegetable powder and in natural meats is exactly the same compound as that found in conventionally cured meats.
However, this substitution doesn’t replace all the nitrite needed to provide important quality and safety attributes. The final nitrite levels are lower and the vegetable powder may have to be limited because it can give the meat product its own flavors, too. These lower nitrate levels mean that the naturally cured meats are not as well protected from spoilage and pathogenic bacteria like Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes. So, other steps must be taken to help keep the product safe. Meat processors add natural antimicrobial ingredients or use extra processes like high pressure processing to protect against spoilage and dangerous bacteria.
So what’s the difference, really?
Generally, natural meats are going to be more expensive because the ingredients that go into them are more expensive. However, when your dinner hits the table, natural and conventionally-cured meats should taste the same and both are safe and nutritious for your family.
For this post, I want to thank Dr. Jeff Sindelar from the University of Wisconsin for helping me explain all the nitrate/nitrite chemistry. Jeff and I have been buddies since graduate school, and he is a great meat scientist who has devoted his research to naturally-cured meats. You can see him talking about it in his Meat Myth Crusher video.