How to Tighten Process Controls for a Cleaner Food Label

Replacing functional ingredients with natural alternatives can cause serious product quality issues without the right process controls.

Many processors are replacing, reducing, or removing functional ingredients to create a cleaner label, but don’t fully understand the impact those replacements can have on product quality.

Last month, we shared 9 natural alternatives that were the best to use if you wanted to avoid product quality issues.

But ingredients are only part of the equation.

Having a tight process control can have a significant impact on improving yields, consistency, quality, and food safety.

The Need for Salt & Sodium Phosphates

Historically, meat products haven’t had a lot of ingredients in their formulations — and those that were used served very specific and important purposes.

Salt and sodium phosphates are two of the most important ingredients used in meat processing to improve flavor, yields, texture, and shelf-life.

If you go back to the early days of meat processing, you’ll notice products had a significantly higher salt content than what is used today.

The higher salt content was used to aid in improving the shelf-life and food safety of the products due to the limited use of refrigeration. This also caused consumers to have a higher tolerance for salt in their food.

However, health trends have pushed the continued reduction of sodium in our diets.

Twenty years ago, many products, such as hams, would have been formulated with 2.5% or more salt content, which would contribute to 800mg or more of sodium for a 2 oz serving.

Today, many ham items are formulated with 1-1.5% salt, giving the product approximately 300-450 mg of sodium per 2 oz serving.

This reduction in salt can cause reduced yields, reduced product bind due to lower extracted proteins, and reduced shelf-life.

Reducing or Replacing Sodium and Phosphates

So, how do you lower salt and sodium phosphates without impacting product quality?

Let’s dive in.

Reducing Sodium

There are two common options for reducing sodium content that we recommend.

Replace with Potassium Chloride

Potassium chloride is the most common and useful ingredient to supplement typical salt/sodium chloride.

However, potassium tends to impart a bitter or metallic taste to the product and should, therefore, be used in moderation.

Processors can substitute up to 25% of the salt/sodium chloride content with little to no effect on flavor.

Using more than 25% can have a negative consumer sensory impact on the product.

Remove Non-Functional Sodium

Many ingredients used in meat processing have some form of sodium, such as sodium nitrite, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, sodium lactate, etc.

Including a significant amount of non-functional sodium will increase the overall sodium level on the nutrition facts panel. Sodium lactate is the biggest contributor to that increased overall sodium level.

A good alternative is ultra-purified potassium lactate with sodium diacetate.

The ultra-purified version removes a lot of the bitterness from the potassium lactate and imparts little, if any, of the bitterness associated with potassium.

When used at the same levels of sodium lactate, ultra-purified potassium lactate with sodium diacetate provides a similar product shelf-life.

Low-sodium dried vinegar options are also available and very effective in inhibiting pathogens, but are not as great at combating food spoilage organisms.

However, vinegar has a greater label appeal than potassium lactate and sodium diacetate.

Replacing Phosphates

Sodium carbonate has become a popular substitute for phosphates in recent years, but it isn’t an exact replacement.

Sodium carbonate functions to increase the pH of the muscle tissue, which in turn allows for improved water-holding opportunities.

It can also help “soften” the water being used in the formulation by binding to any calcium, magnesium, and iron ions that are in the water. The presence of calcium, magnesium, and iron molecules (hard water) can impact product shelf-life, color, and flavor.

Because of the high buffering capacity of sodium carbonate, it doesn’t take much (<0.05%) in the formulation to increase the pH of the brine.

Increasing the pH too high can have a significant negative effect on shelf-life and sensory qualities.

Process Changes

As a consequence of reducing sodium and/or removing phosphate from the formulation, processors began to see more processing issues and product failures.

The historically higher salt content of processed meats along with the use of phosphate covered up a lot of processing deficiencies.

As we reduced sodium and removed phosphate, we had to focus on parts of our operation that historically we hadn’t paid much attention to: things like water hardness and brine temperature.

Temperature Control

One of the biggest deficiencies was the lack of temperature control throughout the process.

The two major aspects of temperature control are controlling the meat and brine temperatures.

Meat Temperature

It is important to not allow the meat to go above 40°F during storage and throughout the process.

Meat begins to freeze near 28°F, which also happens to be the best temperature to maximize water retention and protein extraction.

Brine Temperature

While meat temperature is important, controlling brine temperature provides a greater opportunity to improve product quality.

Of the two major components that make up skeletal muscle (actin and myosin), myosin is mostly responsible for binding water.

Myosin is also salt-soluble and is exponentially more soluble as temperature decreases to a limiting temperature of about 23°F.

This means that the colder the temperature is when salt and myosin (meat) interact, the more effective the salt will be in opening the muscle structure to bind water and extract protein.

If you are producing a phosphate-free product and/or one that is lower in sodium, brine temperature becomes the most important processing parameter to control, which can be controlled in several ways:


One way to achieve this is to use part of the water in the formulation in the form of ice. The correct amount to add is very dependent on the incoming water temperature to the plant.

It’s best to experiment to calculate the correct amount of ice needed. When the brine is completely mixed with all ingredients, there should be very little, if any, ice left in the mixing tank.

Tube-in-Tube Heat Exchanger

Another great option is to have a tube-in-tube heat exchanger with some form of refrigerated liquid, such as propylene glycol, to circulate the brine until it is 28°F or less.

You should also have a jacketed brine holding tank to maintain those lower temperatures before processing.

Once the process has started, it is best to continue to monitor the meat and brine temperatures throughout the process.

Jacketed Tumblers

Another area to consider is the use of jacketed tumblers.

When the product is tumbled, the temperature will rise due to simple friction between the individual pieces and the interaction with the tumbler.

Having a jacketed (chilled) tumbler allows you to control the product temperature — either to maintain or reduce the product temperature through the tumbling cycle.

One nice feature is to have a tumbler that monitors and controls the coolant to maintain the set point you put in the recipe. This will give you the most consistent results.

Tighten Your Processes

By nature, meat is a highly variable raw material.

Understanding where your opportunities lie and having tight process control can have a significant impact on improving yields, product consistency, product quality, and food safety.

This is especially important for those items with less functional ingredients.

Need help tightening your processes so you can have a cleaner label?

Book a time to chat with our food science experts to see how we can help.