The year isn't nearly over, yet the U.S. has seen nearly three dozen meat and poultry recalls since Jan. 1, including a recent voluntary recall of 36 million lbs. of ground turkey due to salmonella fears and 60 thousand lbs. of ground beef for deadly E. coli O157:H7. While this unprecedented march of meat mismanagement causes fear, ire and frustration, it also highlights the fact animal protein still remains the center of the plate at most consumers' tables.
So it's no surprise the two fastest growing segments of this market are organic and closely supervised — i.e. kosher and halal — animal protein products. Sales of these segments have maintained double-digit growth even during the economic downturn.
One of the most prominent examples of this trend in recent years is the growing consumer affinity for free-range, organic-raised meat and poultry. Companies attempting to maintain the highest level of quality and standards — vis both sanitation and ethics — in an industry fraught with controversy are beginning to take notice.
The cooperative of responsible ranchers under the umbrella of Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com), Alameda, Calif., have shown it is possible to meet the increasing demand for organic and cruelty-free animal products. Through its network of family farmers and ranchers, Niman supports rural communities and the highest animal care practices in the industry in order to provide antibiotic- and hormone-free meat via environmentally sustainable agriculture.
"We know that when you do the 'right' things, you get the right results," says Kelli Wilson, Niman's director of food safety and new product development. "For us, that means our passion for every detail brings you the finest quality meats in the world. The animals are never — ever — given antibiotics or added hormones and are fed vegetarian feed." The cooperative now supplies retailers, the service industry and processors with pork, lamb, poultry and beef that complies with clean-label requirements on all levels.
"Consumers are increasingly selecting foods that are manufactured with the 'less is more' approach — fewer ingredients and a label that is simple to read, including ingredients that one may find in their own home pantry," she continues. "This naturally results in color, texture and taste that is much closer to 'home cooked' in products."
So processors find themselves in a pincer movement as they struggle to bring meat, poultry and seafood products that are both wholesome and affordable to American supermarkets.
"The most important ingredient trend is the use of natural and organic ingredients, without preservatives or chemically altered ingredients to improve shelf-life and texture of products, or using genetically modified products and chemical enhancers," says Edith Mendoza, R&D head for Ramar Foods (www.ramarfoods.com), Pittsburg, Calif. The company makes Filipino & Asian frozen foods.
To fulfill this mission, Ramar Foods removed monosodium glutamate (MSG) from most of its products and uses only natural colorants, such as beet powder. The company also uses soy protein concentrate, textured soy protein and other soy ingredients for fat emulsification, binding and texture functionalities and as a texturizer. This is in addition to soy's more traditional use as a protein filler/enhancer or meat extender.
The single most important aspect of animal protein (and key to successful analogs of same) is that of umami, the so-called "fifth flavor" sense described as "meatiness." To keep and enhance that sense, processors typically focus on sodium, key to the tongue's ability to translate that flavor into biochemical satisfaction. Just in the past 2-3 months, sodium is breaking through decades of misinformation and misconstrued research about negative health impacts on healthy people (see Salt Pinches Back). But sodium and MSG still are less desired ingredients for many consumers right now.
"Manufacturers are responding to consumer interest in low-sodium and MSG-free products," confesses Emil Shemer, director of food solutions at Sensient Flavors LLC (www.sensient-tech.com), Indianapolis. "The challenge this presents to ingredient suppliers is to develop high-performance systems that deliver sodium reduction and MSG replacement while still delivering the high-quality taste consumers expect." Sensient's R&D teams developed a portfolio of natural flavor solutions for sodium reduction which allow for up to 35 percent or greater reductions in sodium per serving.
"Sensient's comprehensive approach to sodium reduction includes working with manufacturers to develop reduced-salt products that mimic full-salt versions and creating custom solutions that account for other taste changes that may occur due to the reduction in salt," explains Shemer. "We recently assisted a manufacturer with a health and wellness initiative to replace sodium and MSG. We were able to provide a consolidated flavor solution that delivered the same taste of their product with less sodium and no added MSG. With the cleaner ingredient deck and uncompromised flavor profile, the reformulated product has been a great success in the marketplace."
Not yo mama's umami
While many processors feel sodium reduction will stay an issue for a while, whether or not to enhance meat flavors with MSG remains an important trend in meat & poultry products. Two things are keeping MSG in the toolbox for meat product processors. First is lack of clarity on the science; allergic-like reactions to the ingredient remain largely anecdotal. The second is cost reduction.
"Ingredient-wise, processors are looking for products that will help replace the flavor and texture provided by salt and other sodium ingredients" without incurring ingredient cost spikes, notes William Fields, manager of application innovation for Ajinomoto Food Ingredients (www.ajiusafood.com), Chicago. "Ajinomoto provides ingredient systems that can help with flavor enhancement, and enzyme products that can improve texture in most products wearing health-oriented labels."
Alternatives to MSG exist. "Using natural umami and kokumi ['full-body'] flavors are among the hottest trends as the industry seeks ways to achieve full flavor profiles while managing to attain 'clean' labels, reduce sodium and drop less healthy flavor-contributing ingredients," says Sam Bernhardt, director of new food ingredients for LycoRed Group Inc., (www.lycored.com), Orange, N.J. Bernhardt notes many companies are challenged in attaining full-flavor products that are natural and have a "clean" label. "Of course," he adds, "these flavors also must be cost effective."
To assist processors in attaining just this target, LycoRed developed Sante, a patented, natural tomato concentrate that enhances taste and flavor in place of artificial flavors or enhancers. Sante can be used for salt taste and reduction of other expensive components in a variety of products such as soups, sauces, baked goods, snacks and protein-based formulations.
"By replacing artificial flavors and removing ingredients such as MSG and yeast extracts, we can offer food manufacturers a superior choice for flavorful, clean-label natural products," says Bernhardt. "At the same time, Sante can create cost-saving opportunities due to the reduction in traditional formulary ingredients, such as spices, artificial flavors or tomato paste."
Lori Evans, senior director of technical services for ConAgra's Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings (www.spicetec.com), Omaha, Neb., notes another challenge in sodium reduction. "In reduced-sodium meat-based items, the removal of salt affects functionality and sometimes results in lower cook yield," she explains. "We help processors maintain equal cook yields at up to 30 percent reduction of sodium in their meat products. We achieve this by optimizing the application – not just adding more binding agents.
"For example, a customer was running 25 percent reduced sodium in fully cooked chicken strips and having lower cook yield, which increased costs," she continued.
Spicetec was able to reduce the sodium from the control level of 500mg per 100g down to 300mg per 100g — a 40 percent reduction — while maintaining equal yield.
Another example Evans cites involved creating a seasoning blend and a turkey flavor for use in a customer's turkey breast product. The team was able to develop a blend that gave greater than 20 percent reduction of sodium with the same taste performance as the original product and with a neutral cost factor.
Clean and savory
Umami can be enhanced most simply through the addition of spices and other seasonings. "From a sensory mega-trend perspective, manufacturers continue to innovate and evolve product lines for the changing palates of American consumers," says Evans. "Consumers are open to more bold and exotic flavors that have a familiar appeal. They're looking for succulent meats and poultry and flavorful seafood. For example, they're becoming more accustomed to varietal chili flavors and flavors inspired from bold spice blends."
Sensient has a comprehensive portfolio of flavor solutions for savory products including "culinary" flavors, such as from stocks, mirepoix, roux, pan drippings, wine and balsamic reductions, fresh herbs, roasted meats and vegetables. These flavors lend a homemade taste to dishes with finishing notes, such as slow roasted beef, fresh tomato, rotisserie chicken, aged beef; and flavors that mimic cooking techniques, such as from wood-fire grilled, oven roasted, smoked or sautéed tastes.
"Consumers desire a savory product that appears like it was prepared at home," says Jennifer Brown, a global application scientist at Louisville, Ky.-based D.D. Williamson (www.ddwilliamson.com), "Meat processors have caught the clean-label trend for ingredients. We recently helped several manufacturers of meat snacks replace FD&C synthetic food color additives with naturally derived coloring alternatives."
"Manufacturers are focused on balancing the drive for reduced fat — especially saturated fat — and reduced sodium, as well as cost-in-use," contributes Janice Johnson, applications/technical service leader at Cargill Inc. (www.cargill.com), Minneapolis. "One of the greatest ingredient-related issues is the ongoing challenge of matching the flavor type — i.e., fat-friendly vs. water-friendly, such as with autolyzed yeast extract. It's all very dependent on the finished formula."
Cargill provides an array of texturizing solutions focusing on organoleptic sensory profiles. The ingredient giant also is one of the largest meat processors in the country, giving it unique expertise in the development of solutions for protein-based products. The company's texture portfolio includes hydrocolloids, such as alginates, carrageenan, locust bean gum and xanthan gum, as well as enzyme solutions.
To preserve and protect
Techniques for preserving animal protein foodstuffs have been refined over a period of tens of thousands of years. Drying and salting — getting rid of moisture — were the preferred methods for most of those years, and the concepts they engender are still fundamental: moisture control and rancidity protection.
"The meat industry is a great user of chemical protectants such as phosphate," says Ohad Cohen, CEO of Vitiva (www.vitiva.eu), Slovenia. Vitiva provides natural, rosemary-derived antioxidant and rancidity protection ingredients for animal protein-products. "Application of these natural ingredients allows reduction of microbial log and keeps the product fresh and juicy, allowing for extended shelf-life."
Controlling for water content and activity is especially important with poultry. "The industry is looking for more water binding solutions that are phosphate free yet 100 percent natural," says Cohen. "The off 'metallic' taste that can result from using phosphate and other synthetic preservatives is something to be avoided and eliminated, plus it's preferable to maintain the whiteness of poultry while maintaining juiciness."
Vitiva developed a new, phosphate-free formulation called VPoultry that provides a full brine system allowing for antirancidity management and enhanced water binding, while reducing the stringy mouthfeel common to some treated chicken breast products. VPoultry also eliminates blood "clutter" on the main bone of drumsticks during the cooking process.
Phosphates recently became a target of European processors of fish and seafood. Typically, the processing of fish is begun on the boats. But moisture and proteins dissolve into the iced sea water in which the processed fish are stored onboard. By the time fish reach the plants on shore, 10 percent of the weight is lost and the flesh is more prone to turning rubbery after cooking.
"Vitiva created a special product following extensive research in Iceland, Scandinavia and South Africa," says Cohen. The result was Vitiva Vfish solution. Boasting the same qualities as VPoultry, VFish provides water binding ability specifically suited to the different muscle structure of seafood. It helps processors mitigate loss of moisture and proteins in the fish. It also makes deboning procedures easier, with the meat staying firm and juicy, and without off flavors.