Quick — what’s the first thing you think when someone says ‘meat’? Well, whatever you were thinking, your answer probably wasn’t ‘fruit.’ But in today’s ravenous market for clean labels and protein-rich products, the addition of fruit-based flavor enhancers can be practical and profitable when it comes to the deli counter.

California-based Sunsweet Ingredients is excited about one fruit in particular: plums. This simple treat, it turns out, is more than just a natural sweet that’s easily applied to traditional baking, it’s also a clean-label solution to meat and poultry processing, says representative Kate Leahy.

“We've found that they can help remove phosphates from marinades and replace artificial caramel color,” she says. “They also can prevent lipid oxidation, which could be helpful in deli meats.”

Fresh plum concentrate can be used for cook-in-bag and heat-treated meats, as well as for binding moisture in whole-muscle proteins, she says. Producers can use it to pull out phosphates for a cleaner label and also use it throughout production: it blends easily with water and can be used in both injection processes and vacuum tumbling.

When used as a flavor enhancer, it applies both sweetness and acidity, she says, resulting in a nutritional label with less sodium and sugar. Its addition also translates to a longer shelf life due to its natural antioxidants, which stifle lipid oxidation.

“Alone, the plum-red liquid has the consistency of high-grade maple syrup and carries a pleasant, tart-cherry flavor,” she says. “For usage, less is more: we recommend using it at .5 percent to the weight of the meat block. While it does have a cherry color, it is used in such small quantities that it doesn't color products, but does enhance browning.”

But the funny little fruit doesn’t stop at concentrate: dried plum puree has an equal number of meat-centric advantages, including moisture and caramel color on top of those antioxidants. It even lowers drip in sausage production for a higher product yield.

“Dried plum puree can be added directly to the meat before grinding, or while mixing/emulsifying the meat,” she says. “It allows for the reduction in total salt and seasoning while ensuring sausages stay plump. The puree is dark purple with a tangy molasses flavor. For sausages, we recommend using around three percent to the weight of the meat block. But if the sausage is supposed to be light in color, like a boudin blanc, the puree is probably going to be too dark to use and the concentrate is a better bet.”

Following the concentrate and puree is dried plum powder. Its absorbent quality makes it ideal for rubs, giving spices a tighter bind to meat and poultry surfaces, thereby cutting down on the amount of rub needed in production. It absorbs purge in fresh and cook-in-bag meats, and can replace other sweeteners for caramel color in sausages on their first grind. It too can be combined with plum concentrate for further cost savings.

Last but not least is dried plum fiber. “Like the powder, dried plum fiber performs well as a surface treatment when mixed with a seasoning rub, helping spices and herbs adhere to the meat’s surface,” Leahy says, noting that it can absorb six times its own weight. “The fiber is also effective at wicking away moisture in cook-in-bag products and marinated fresh products. And even though it contains very little sugar, it has been shown to enhance caramelization and replace artificial caramel color in products such as fully-cooked burgers.”