Whether it's used to discuss baseball or computer software, the aphorism "meat and potatoes" means that a thing is basic and perhaps essential. And meat is the first word in that equation.
Meat, and more broadly, animal proteins including poultry and seafood have traditionally been the common centerpiece of most American meals.
But in today's kitchens and food processing facilities, meat has to go beyond basic to deliver essential protein but within a much more rigorous set of consumer expectations.
"When I go out, to a restaurant, or when I buy meat at the store, I want a clear understanding of how the meat is produced and packaged," says executive chef Chris Hansen of the OSI Group, Aurora, Ill. "That can mean everything from what the animal was fed and other animal welfare issues, to the appearance, and visual cues like marbling. The last thing I think about is price. I think consumers have a very specific short-list of what they expect."
Many consumers are working toward including a higher ratio of plant-based foods in their diet, so whether meat is the center of a meal or an accent point, it has to be great quality.
Animal proteins in their traditional cuts and forms have always been expensive to produce, and more often than in the past the cost is finding its way to food processors and consumers.
OSI operates more than 50 manufacturing facilities worldwide producing a broad variety of meats and protein-based products ranging from raw bacon to assembled sandwiches, primarily for quick-service restaurants and private labels. Hansen says chefs, food scientists and meat companies like OSI now expect to get more from each animal and to make the protein they have go further.
"In some cases that means people are reaching more deeply into the carcass and using cuts that might not have been utilized before," Hansen says. "There is also a move toward animal protein being more of an accent rather than a main feature of a meal."
Hansen also sees a place for sous vide cooking principals to be used in food processing. With this process, meat can be packaged raw in plastic pouches and immersed in a hot water bath for an extended period to cook it thoroughly but gently. It has certain advantages including improved flavor and texture, and reduced risk of post-processing contamination.
So processors, whether they are small specialty companies or global entities like OSI, must find ways to deliver processed meats, fresh meats, frozen meats and meat-based foods that are flavorful without being too costly. They also must come up with products with greater shelf life and stability that also have a healthful nutritional profile.
In many cases, meeting these goals has become a matter of portion control, and advances in handling and packaging practices also help. But the use of certain ingredients also can help meat perform better, with or without the potatoes.
A pinch (or more) of salt
Alef Sausage Co., Mundelein, Ill., was founded in 2000 with the goal of producing traditional European-style sausages for specialty delis and grocers. While it is still a small company with just 15 full-time employees, its business has grown steadily and it now has specialty and mainstream retail customers across the U.S. and Canada.
Founder Alec Mikhaylov says the company depends on quality whole meat ingredients, spices and flavorings. "Our goal from the beginning is just quality," he says. "We make a premium product with fresh meat from Smithfield and Farmington. We only use fresh, never frozen."
The company produces dozens of SKUs in three categories: cooked salamis, dried salamis and bologna/mortadella products. Product literature describes gentle flavors and "memorable aromas." For all Alef's products, spices are important for maximizing those flavor and aroma attributes.
"Our suppliers provide spices that are ground fresh to order," Mikhaylov says. While sodium nitrate is used as a preservative in many cured meat products, Alef has recently rolled out a natural, better-for-you line that relies on celery powder.
"Celery powder is a natural sodium nitrate. You can achieve the same shelf life," Mikhaylov notes. "Celery products also provide a clean label benefit. Although they actually contribute nitrates they can be labeled simply as celery on the ingredient deck."
In terms of size, Perdue Foods Salisbury, Md., sits at the other end of the spectrum, as the largest integrated poultry producer in the U.S. But just like Alef Sausage, Perdue has customers who want better-for-you products, so Perdue's R&D teams work hard to formulate products that can meet those expectations.
A couple years ago, Perdue rolled out its Simply Smart line of minimally processed cooked chicken products made with no preservatives and only natural ingredients. Celery seed can be found on the ingredient deck of some of those products, too, including a recently introduced gluten-free breaded chicken tenders product.
Perdue's Simply Smart chicken is made with whole cuts of chicken breast and includes Original Roasted Chicken Chunks, Original Grilled Chicken Strips, Lightly Breaded Chicken Chunks, Lightly Breaded Chicken Strips, and Lightly Breaded Chicken Filets. The company says each item has at least 40 percent fewer calories, at least 50 percent less fat and at least 25 percent more protein than the USDA standard for breaded fried boneless chicken.
Of course in most processed meat application, more than a pinch of salt is needed, says Doyle Keffer, salt technical services applications manager with Cargill Foods, Minneapolis.
"Salt is a key component to the shelf stability of meat products and is highly effective," Keffer says. "Therefore it is critical not to sacrifice shelf life while obtaining a lower sodium objective. We have completed numerous studies verifying shelf-stability products while reducing the sodium through the addition of our lower sodium alternatives."
Cargill offers a couple product solutions for the meat industry’s reduced sodium initiatives, including Premier brand potassium chloride and Flake Select, a recently introduced line of agglomerated salt products.
"Premier potassium chloride is a granulated product that performs well in dry or brine applications for meat processes. It can generally be added at a 1:1 substitution ratio replacing salt for targets of up to a 50 percent sodium reduction without sacrificing flavor, texture, cook yields and shelf-life of the product. It is easy to use and may be applied in the same manner as salt."
Flake Select is the company's newest solution for sodium reduction. "Flake Select is a functional system that modifies the crystal structure to provide enhanced functionality. It is offered in four different screen cuts: flour, fine, coarse and extra coarse. The flour and fine cuts offer an advantage in brine applications by providing very fast solubility, having no residual undissolved salts left over in bottom of brine tanks, eliminating wasted ingredients and providing potential cost saving by being able to use less weight of initial ingredients to create the brine."
When compared to a product that is a blended mix of potassium chloride and salt, which can result in separation of the ingredients, Flake Select provides even flavors to food, Keffer adds.
Recently, Cargill worked with a customer in Mexico that was looking to improve the sliceability of one of its deli products but did not want to increase the sodium levels in the product. "We conducted a test adding our Premier potassium chloride at optimal levels to enhance the sliceability and maintain the current flavor profile," Keffer says.
Revved for protein
The low-carb, high protein diets that were prevalent more than a decade ago gave way to a new consumer awareness surrounding protein. Greek yogurt is one offspring of the increased consumer knowledge regarding protein, and Hormel Foods, Austin, Minn., figures it knows enough about the subject to come up with a new products that might find similar success but stay close to Hormel's meat knowledge base.
In July Hormel introduced Hormel REV wraps, a line of snack products designed to appeal to teens. The hand-held meat and cheese wraps provide a high-protein alternative to the empty-calorie snack that teens often turn to.
"With snacking now known as the fourth meal occasion, the launch of Hormel REV wraps continues our efforts to bring a unique and convenient meat-based protein into this fast growing category," said Steven Venenga, vice president of meat products marketing at Hormel Foods. "Our consumers told us they were interested in a protein-rich snack made with real ingredients that supports their families’ on- the-go lifestyle."
Hormel REV wraps come in eight varieties, including Pepperoni Pizza, Ham and Cheese, and Italian Style Ham. The ingredient lists for the REV wrap products is a bit more complicated that that of the Perdue Simply Smart offerings, but then again, it is a more complex product.
For products like these and for other packaged meats and deli products there are ingredient solutions that can help processors deliver viable, innovative products that are natural.
Kemin Food Technologies, Des Moines, Iowa, offers Fortium, a brand of antioxidant made from rosemary extract. The company says the product's active compound is a mixture of tocopherol, which help keep food fresh. It is "especially efficacious in food products with high fat/oil content, such as meat and poultry products, nuts, spices, salad dressings, mayonnaise, marine oils, lard vegetable oils, instant noodles and cereals," the company says.
Recently Kemin introduced BactoCease NV, a label-friendly ingredient for the intervention of Listeria monocytogenes in meat and poultry processing facilities. BactoCease NV is an alternative to traditional synthetic preservatives designed to keep ready-to-eat (RTE) deli meats safe and fresh without impacting the taste.
It is a buffered, vinegar-based liquid that protects ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, and has been proven to extend product shelf life. The entire BactoCease line is applied at a lower application compared to traditional lactates, which can potentially decrease cost per pound of meat and contribute less sodium in the finished meat product.
"Recent increases of pathogenic outbreaks are fueling demand by consumers and government agencies for safer meat and poultry products," said Brittany Bailey, product manager for the food technologies division of Kemin. "Our food safety platform tackles this problem head-on, providing meat manufacturers with a full line of natural and synthetic ingredient alternatives that offer more consistent control and intervention compared to traditional lactates without negatively impacting sensory or quality attributes."
Kemin offers a series of products extracted from rosemary, spearmint and green tea.
In a perfect world, the natural, savory flavors of meats, poultry and seafood would be easy to maintain through processing and distribution. In reality, food processors often need to enhance those flavors so that a product offers great flavor when it reaches the consumer.
IDF Foods, Springfield, Mo., makes dehydrated ingredients including broth powders, meat powders and fat powders. Typical Applications include soup, broth, soup base, sauce, gravy, marinade and flavors, as well as liquid broth and fat. Kikkoman Foods, San Francisco, offers a broad line of sauces that can help food processors meet that goal.
"Kikkoman product usage in meat applications has increased dramatically over the last few years due to our natural brewing process and on-trend varieties," says regional sales manager Joe Leslie. "Soy sauce is a great natural source of umami, and allows meat products to taste rich and delicious. It is the perfect way to bring out the flavor in less-flavorful meats. Soy sauce is also a great tenderizer for meats. It will improve the texture of tougher beef and pork products."
Kikkoman sauces include: soy sauces, dehydrated soy sauces, teriyaki sauces, natural flavor enhancers, Asian sauces (such as Thai Chili Sauce, Sriracha Sauce, Hoisin Sauce, Orange Sauce, Stir Fry Sauce, Sweet & Sour Sauce) and rice wine products (Salted Sake, Salted Mirin, Kotterin).
Kikkoman recently introduced a line of Natural Flavor Enhancers that have applications in meats, due to their ability to add boost flavor without adding color to the final product. "Our Natural Flavor Enhancers are a type of soy sauce that have been fermented in a way that eliminates most of the soy sauce flavor and color," Leslie says. "These items provide a huge umami boost and have been used to replace HVPs [hydrolyzed vegetable protein] and MSG [monosodium glutamate] in natural meat applications. Because of the lack of soy sauce flavor, they are perfect for non-Asian applications, as well as in delicate poultry and seafood products."
With or without potatoes, meat continues to play a key role in foods, and ingredient technologies can help food processors do more with meat.