Over the last 10-15 years, the food industry has made a shift to create products with “cleaner labels” or natural ingredients.
This trend stemmed from consumers demanding healthier options.
Think back to Panera Bread’s “No-No” List that pushed the demand to remove chemical-sounding ingredients from their products.
Ingredients containing “-ites” and “-ates” in their name, such as sodium lactate, sodium phosphate, and sodium nitrite were considered bad, but found in the normal consumer’s pantry.
Replacing these ingredients for more natural ingredients created a myriad of product quality and yield issues, as “-ite” and “-ate” ingredients are considered functional ingredients.
Before you start making the switch, it’s important to understand these functional ingredients and the proper alternatives to use.
What Are Functional Ingredients?
Functional, or core, ingredients have a long history of use in the meat, food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industries for their ability to:
- Inhibit microbial growth
- Increase water holding capacity
- Prevent oxidation
Removing a functional ingredient often leads to dramatic changes in product quality and consistency, so processors have to look to alternative ingredients or processes to maintain product quality, yields, appearance, and shelf-life.
Replacing Functional Ingredients
Replacing functional ingredients with cleaner labels or natural ingredients does not always result in a true 1:1 replacement.
When not done correctly, the replacement can affect yields, consistency, product quality, taste, and shelf-life.
Cost is another factor to consider. A significant increase in ingredient costs is a main concern processors face.
It’s important to know how alternatives can impact your product before making the jump to cleaner labels or natural ingredients.
Natural Alternatives to Functional Ingredients
Let’s dive into the most commonly used core ingredients and some recommended natural alternatives along with suggestions on usage and some warnings.
Outside of water, salt is the single most important ingredient in meat processing.
It helps develop flavor, extract protein to bind the meat together, lower the isoelectric point to help retain water and improve yields, enhance shelf-life, and so much more.
“Regular” salt has been the go-to ingredient in the industry for decades, but today’s consumers are looking for products with sea salt on the label.
Before you make the switch, it’s important to use the appropriate sea salt.
Sea Salt contains other types of salts, not just sodium chloride (table salt). These impurities may affect the end product by reducing the water-holding capacity of the meat, causing color changes or variances, and can impart a detectable metallic taste in the product.
Make sure to use high-grade sea salt with minimum impurities to help minimize any product quality issues that may arise.
Sugar has long been used in the meat industry as a flavoring agent and to offset the impact of salt in traditionally high-salt items, such as bacon and ham.
Refined sugars have been the go-to for many years with some of the cheapest options being sourced from sugar beets.
Many consumers now demand raw sugars, such as Demerara or Turbinado sugars, as they are seen as healthier alternatives to refined sugars.
Raw sugars come from sugar cane and are in raw/unrefined forms which can change the flavor of existing items that use refined sugars.
They can also enhance the flavors of items with higher sugar content, like brown sugar hams or sugar-cured hams.
Sodium nitrite has been used to preserve meat products for thousands of years.
It is responsible for the “pink color” of cured meats and when used at proper levels, completely inhibits the growth of Clostridium botulinum and slows the growth of many pathogenic bacteria.
Commercially, the most common form of sodium nitrite used today is Prague Powder, which is a mixture of:
- 93.75% table salt (NaCl)
- 6.25% sodium nitrite
Sodium nitrite is a naturally occurring compound found in soil and, consequently, can be found at significant levels in many plants, especially those with a high water content like spinach or celery.
In recent years, the use of naturally occurring forms of sodium nitrites has grown in popularity, the most common of which is celery powder or celery juice powder.
Celery juice powder is considered to be more label-friendly than sodium nitrite, though both contain sodium nitrite.
When this ingredient first came to the market, it contained nitrate, (the precursor to nitrite) and as such, needed to be converted to a nitrite at some point in the thermal process. This was accomplished by adding a starter culture, such as Staph. carnosus, which produced a reducing enzyme called reductase which converted the nitrate to nitrite.
This process added additional costs and processing time to the product because an additional fermentation step was needed early in the process. It increased the time in the oven by an additional two (2) to four (4) hours to allow the culture to work prior to the actual cooking process.
The ingredient manufacturers responded by creating a preconverted celery powder to eliminate this step in the process. However, this pre-conversion did increase the cost of the ingredient.
One issue that arose with pre-converted celery powder was the wide range of actual nitrite in the ingredient. The early versions of pre-converted celery juice powders were notoriously all over the board in regard to how much nitrite per gram was in the celery powder, which created formulation issues that caused processors to either:
- Add way too much nitrites causing the finished product to be higher in nitrites than necessary.
- Not adding enough nitrite can lead to unstable color development and reduced food safety.
Ingredient suppliers responded to these issues by creating tighter nitrite standards so processors can formulate to a specific set of parts per million (ppm) of ingoing nitrite to produce more consistent products and enhance the food safety aspects.
Cherry powder goes hand in hand with celery powder, much like sodium erythorbate or sodium ascorbate goes hand in hand with sodium nitrite — their job is to accelerate the curing process and to stabilize color.
Cherry powder is the most commonly used natural cure accelerator and is used as a replacement for sodium erythorbate or sodium ascorbate.
Cherry powder contains high levels of ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C.
Rosemary Extract/Natural Antioxidants
Oxygen is the enemy of fat and causes fat to break down over time which leads to off or rancid flavors.
Historically, ingredients like BHA, BHT, and citric acid have been used as antioxidants in meat products.
A commonly used natural antioxidant is rosemary extract, which is available a liquid or powdered form.
Rosemary contains high levels of rosmarinic and carnosic acids, both of which have antioxidative properties. Though it is not as powerful as the combination of BHA, BHT, and citric acid, it is a widely used alternative.
Keep in mind, though, that some rosemary extracts can contain some strong flavors and should be taken into consideration when formulating products.
Today we see a wide variety of naturally occurring antioxidants that are label-friendly, called “natural flavors”. We suggest talking to your ingredient supplier to find the right version for your products.
Broth has traditionally been used as a flavoring agent and is preferred by some as an alternative to simply putting water on the label.
Newer technology has allowed broth to be used as a water retainer as well as a protein enhancer.
Broths contain various proteins, including collagen. Broths with a high functional collagen protein content have a high affinity for absorbing and retaining water. Once the gel is formed, it is trapped within the muscle structure and improves product yield and juiciness.
Functional broths have been used to replace water-retaining ingredients such as food starches, carrageenans, and sodium phosphates. Other protein broths available can be used in dried items to help increase the protein content to improve a product’s moisture:protein ratio as is required per some USDA guidelines.
Fermented Sugars & Vinegar
Food safety and product shelf-life are extremely important in food manufacturing and should be considered during product development.
One of the most popular inhibitors used was a combination of sodium lactate and sodium diacetate. This combination is effective and has a significant amount of food safety validation data available.
However, for many consumers, sodium lactate and sodium diacetate don’t look good on a label, causing many manufacturers to begin looking for cleaner label alternatives.
Dried vinegar fills this role and is very effective against pathogenic microorganisms, such as Listeria monocytogenes, but isn’t necessarily great at combating spoilage organisms, such as Leuconostoc or Pseudomonas spp. bacteria.
Fermented sugars are very effective as an addition to dried vinegar because the bacteriocins produced during the fermentation of sugars can be targeted to common food spoilage microorganisms.
Sodium Phosphate Replacements
Sodium phosphate, salt, and water are arguably the most important functional ingredients in meat processing.
As part of the “-ates” and “-ites” movement, we have seen a significant reduction in the use of phosphates in the meat industry. The holy grail of ingredient manufacturers is to find or create a direct replacement for sodium phosphate.
Many companies advertise phosphate replacements, but many of these products are combinations of starch, hydrocolloids, naturally occurring fiber, and/or strictly a pH manipulation ingredient.
Phosphates do so much more than help improve processing yields. They can help:
Soften the water used in formulation by chelating metal ions
Break the actomyosin complex in meat to help create a more tender product
Improve water-holding of the meat
Stabilize cooked meat flavors due to their antioxidative properties
That is not to say that the phosphate “replacers” in the marketplace are not beneficial to use. Only that, to date, we have not found a suitable direct replacement for phosphate.
For phosphate-free products, sodium carbonate has become a very valuable ingredient because of its ability to increase the pH of the product at very low use levels (~0.05%). This slight pH manipulation can pay significant dividends in increased yields.
However, this pH increase can also decrease the product shelf-life, so finding the right balance is very important when using this ingredient.
It can be considered a processing aid when used as a water conditioner and therefore does not need to be on the label.
Reformulating or creating “Cleaner Label” products does not come without issues.
A significant increase in ingredient cost is one of the single greatest problems processors encounter. This can make the move to cleaner label ingredients cost-prohibitive for some processors.
Another issue to consider is the potential decrease in product yield and quality. Replacing a functional ingredient for a natural ingredient is rarely a 1:1 substitute.
While this list is in no way intended to be a comprehensive overview of all the alternative and label-friendly ingredients in the marketplace, our hope is that this information can guide anyone looking to clean up a label while limiting the effects on quality, yields, and product cost.
Need more help? Schedule a call with our food scientists to test your formulations in our Innovation Center.