Replacing Nitrites/Phosphates-Processed Meats

Originally Published: December 5, 2016
Last Updated: February 9, 2021
Plum products (fresh and dried concentrates, powders and fibers) can be used to replace phosphates in comminuted meats for moisture rentention.

December 5, 2016 – Processed meats are a food category where easily recognizable, clean label ingredients can be used to achieve the same technical functionality of manufactured ingredients. However, these ingredients come with their own flavor and technical challenges.

“The primary ingredients currently used to develop clean label processed meats include vegetable juice powders, to replace nitrates/ nitrites as curing agents; and acerola cherry powder to replace sodium erythorbate as a cure accelerator. Plum-based products (fresh and dried concentrates, powders and fibers) are effective at replacing phosphates for moisture retention,” said Webb Girard, MSc, a Culinologist with CuliNex, Seattle.

The nitrates in vegetable juice powder are converted to nitrites via lactic acid bacteria to create curing agents. Because they use vegetable ingredients, they have a unique flavor profile, all while promoting pink color and firming the texture. They also act as a preservative and antioxidant.

For clean label products, manufacturers can use vegetable sources of nitrites, primarily celery juice. Nitrites, both naturally and synthetically derived, are very effective at recommended usage levels but can be toxic at high levels, so control of usage levels is very important, advised Girard.

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Most clean label alternatives for processed meats come from fruit and vegetable sources.

Technology has advanced from the use of liquid vegetable juice to vegetable juice powder as a nitrite source. The powdered version is much easier to use and has minimal vegetal flavor. The meat processor must still carefully control pH and might need to balance the celery flavor with other seasonings. Vegetable juice powder costs some $26/lb vs. 6 cents/lb for conventional nitrates. Labeling implications are outlined in 9CFR 317.17 and 9CFR 391.2. Label the product as uncured (i.e., “uncured boneless ham”). The label must also declare, “No nitrates or nitrites added except for the naturally occurring nitrates in sea salt and celery powder. Not preserved. Keep refrigerated below 40°F at all times.”

There are no regulations on the amount of vegetable juice powder to be added, and usage levels are dictated by the amount needed to achieve desired effects and flavor balance. There is a wide variety of effectiveness and a lack of product control on some clean label products in the marketplace, according to Gerard.

Use USDA guidelines for nitrite levels to determine optimal levels of natural nitrites. A level of 40ppm is the minimum needed for color fixing, and color will fade after 45 days. A level of 100ppm is the minimum needed for stable color. Cherry powder from the acerola cherry can be used to replace sodium erythorbate as a cure accelerator through pH reduction and is needed in rapid-process products, such as hot dogs and bacon. It also helps improve flavor stability, color and shelflife.The type of meat application will determine if there is a need for a curing accelerator.

Phosphates alter the pH and increase the water-holding capacity of meats. Phosphate replacers can be expensive and can impact the flavor and texture of the finished product.

One option is to use plum-based products for phosphate replacement. Plum products attract and hold moisture in open-muscle fibers and commuted products. Plum products have minimal flavor impact; may enhance flavor; and can be cost-neutral when used to replace phosphates. They are high in antioxidants and suppress warmed-over flavors. Though they have a regulatory limit when used as a binder, there is no limit on usage as a flavor enhancer. They are allergen-free and can allow for salt and spice reduction. Depending on what form of plum is used, they are typically labeled as “fresh plum concentrate” or “dried plum purée.”

Whole foods ingredients are effective in replacing synthetic ingredients in processed meats. However, meat manufacturers will need to optimize formulas for flavor, cost and functionality.

“An Industry Insight into Replacing Nitrites and Phosphates in Processed Meats,” Webb Girard, MSc, Culinologist, Culinex, LLC,, 206-719-0485

December 5, 2016–Global Food Forums, Inc.The summary above is an excerpt from the “2016 Clean Label Conference Magazine.”

This presentation was given at the 2016 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

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