12 January - 20 June 2016

Researchers analyse the possibility of nitrite free processed meat

18 November 2015

Nitrite is a commonly used multifunctional additive in the meat industry. It removes moisture and reduces water activity preventing microbial growth. In its nitric oxide form it binds to heme and free iron, oxygen and other reactive oxygen species preventing lipid oxidation and the development of off-flavours during storage. In addition to its preservative effects it contributes to the formation of unique flavour, reddish-pink colour and texture. Alahakoon and colleagues from Korea and Sri Lanka review the usage of nitrite in the meat industry in an article recently published in Trends in Food Science & Technology.

Recent consumer demand for a clean label and the health risks associated with ingestion of nitrite (cancer) have encouraged meat processors to look for nitrite alternatives. In contrast nitrite was also identified as an important molecule for human health. For example it controls blood flow and may prevent various types of cardiovascular disease. Nitrite is also produced in human saliva and acts as an antibacterial agent. Although, meat products are not the only source of nitrate or nitrite, and some studies showed no link between nitrite and health risks, the meat industry is focusing on reducing its nitrite usage.

To date no single replacement, with all the properties of nitrite, has been identified. The potential candidates are plants (containing more than 2500 mg/kg nitrate such as celery, spinach, radish or lettuce) organic acids (lactate, acetate, sorbate and benzoate) and bacteriocins (antimicrobial proteins or peptides). Additionally, treating meat with high pressure water (from 100 to 900 MPa) was proposed as an alternative to nitrite addition. Alahakoon and et al. conclude that ‘the most effective approach is to use hurdle technologies for meat curing, in which low levels of sodium nitrite are used in combination with other compounds and/or with other processing technologies possessing inhibitory activities against the most prevalent pathogenic microbes along with better sensory qualities’. The authors highlight the safety studies which need to be conducted before new compounds and/or technologies can be implemented in the food industry.

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