Additives play an important role in food processing, with many assisting in the production of affordable, quality and safe food. Though numerous meat and poultry processors are currently trying to eliminate chemical-sounding ingredients from product formulations, it is important to understand that some products, based on use, positioning and price point in the market, cannot be formulated to be so called “clean label.” Traditional, standard, proven-to-be safe ingredients are required. Some such ingredients fall into the categories of lactates and phosphates.

Historical perspective

Ingredients approved for use as food additives by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) have been used for thousands of years; however, only since 1958 have they been federally regulated. This was when the Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act passed. It was put in place to prevent the sale of misbranded and adulterated foods. Today, more than 3,000 substances are recognized food additives, with salt and sugar the most widely used throughout the food industry. 

The term “food additive” is defined by the F.D.A. as any substance that – directly or indirectly – becomes a component or otherwise affects the characteristics of any food. This definition includes any substance used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation or storage of food. Additives are used to maintain or improve safety, freshness, nutritional value, taste, texture and appearance. Increased use of food additives by manufacturers coincided with consumer demand for more prepared, processed and convenient foods.

Before any substance can be added to food, its safety must be assessed by a stringent approval process. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) shares responsibility with the F.D.A. for the safety of food additives used in meat, poultry and egg products, with all additives initially evaluated for safety by the F.D.A.

This is something food activists typically fail to communicate, as they’d rather use scare tactics to worry consumers that their foods are unsafe or unfit for human consumption. The fact is, ingredients are only allowed in food after they have been thoroughly evaluated and deemed safe. The United States has one of the safest food supply chains in the world, and this is a result of these strict food safety regulations.

Johnsonville cheddar beef brat
Phosphates may reduce oxidation, chelate metals, preserve color and prevent rancidity of fat.

When it comes to approving an additive specifically for use in meat or poultry, its safety, technical function and conditions of use must also be evaluated by the Risk, Innovations and Management Staff of F.S.I.S., as provided in the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and related regulations. Although the F.D.A. has overriding authority regarding additive safety, F.S.I.S. may apply even stricter standards that take into account the unique characteristics of meat and poultry. For example, several years ago, permission was sought to use sorbic acid in meat salads. Although sorbic acid is an approved food additive, permission for use in meat salad was denied, because such usage could mask spoilage caused by organisms that cause foodborne illness.

The government is indeed looking out for the welfare of its people, so much so that additives are never given permanent approval. Their safety is continually reviewed. Based on the best scientific knowledge, regulators determine if approvals should be modified or withdrawn.

Back in 1958, the Food Additives Amendment exempted two groups of additives from the F.D.A.’s testing and approval process. The first group – known as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) – includes substances considered harmless under prescribed conditions of use. Examples include flavorings and spices, as well as lactates and phosphates.

The other group is known as “substances with prior sanction.” These additives were approved by the U.S.D.A. and F.D.A. for use in foods prior to the passage of the 1958 Food Additives Amendment. This list includes common curing ingredients, such as potassium nitrite and sodium nitrite.

Powerhouse approved additives

As stated, lactates and phosphates are both ingredient families recognized as GRAS. They have been embraced by meat and poultry processors for years, and will continue to be used for their powerful functional properties that enable retailers to sell affordable, quality and safe products.

Lactates are all about providing food safety. Lactate is the salt form of lactic acid, a well-recognized powerful antimicrobial. Lactates are often used in conjunction with other salt forms of organic acids to provide the most power in keeping pathogenic microorganisms in check.

The level of effectiveness of organic acids is determined by the amount of undissociated acid that penetrates the bacteria cell wall and disrupts its physiology. For ready-to-eat meat and poultry, lactates and diacetates have historically been considered the industry standard. Some suppliers offer blends of organic acid salts, including acetate, diacetate, lactate and propionate to create the most effective antimicrobial system for a particular application.

Lactates, in particular sodium lactate, are known to also enhance the flavor of some meat products. Traditionally sodium lactate has been used, but as the name suggests, the ingredient contributes sodium to the formulation. Potassium lactate is an option when trying to keep sodium content under control.

Sodium and potassium lactate may be used, singly or in combination, in all fully cooked meat and poultry products at up to 4.8% of the total formulation to inhibit the growth of several pathogenic bacteria, including Listeria monocytogenes. If used at a level of 2% or less, lactates are then considered simply a flavor enhancer.

The antimicrobial effects of lactate and diacetate may also retard the growth of spoilage microorganisms, thus they may have a positive impact on product shelf life. This is helpful when trying to maintain the freshness of uncooked marinated meat products, specifically chicken breasts and pork loins, at the retail level.

Phosphates are used in meat and poultry products for numerous reasons, most notably to raise the pH of the protein, which in turn increases its water-holding capacity. Raising the pH opens up the fibrous proteins, allowing moisture migration, which the proteins grab onto. This binding of water increases yields. The proteins also are better able to retain marinade and cook juices, thereby reducing purge and assuring that meat is succulent once cooked.

Phosphates may also reduce oxidation, chelate metals, preserve color, lend freeze/thaw stability, maintain flavor and prevent rancidity of fat along with the development of warmed-over-flavor when a product is reheated. Some phosphates excel at extracting proteins to bind muscle pieces, providing for stable emulsions in comminuted meats.

Food-grade phosphates are derived from phosphoric acid and can assume many forms. Most are linear molecules and contain a single phosphate (ortho), two phosphates (pyro) or three or more phosphates (poly). There are also metaphosphates, which are composed of several phosphates in a ring-shape structure. Most phosphates are alkaline and have a high pH; however, there are some phosphates referred to as acid phosphates, and they have a neutral to slightly acidic pH.

There are many varied phosphates, each with their own claims to fame. Some are very effective at increasing pH, while others are better at preserving color. Processors often use blends of phosphates designed for specific applications to allow for the best color formation with simultaneous increase in pH, which also increases yield and succulence.

Not all phosphates will work in all meat systems. The type and concentration of phosphates in a blend will influence price.

Most phosphates are sodium based; thus, if reducing sodium content is a concern, potassium phosphates are available. However, potassium often contributes bitter notes that can impact taste.

Always looking out for the consumer, the U.S.D.A. limits the amount of phosphate that can be used in meat and poultry to 8 oz per 100 lbs of product. However, half that amount typically suffices.

Phosphates are permitted in whole muscle bone-in and boneless products including roasts, steaks, hams, chops, tenderloins, poultry breasts, thighs and wings, whole chicken and turkey, muscle strips, and more. The application of phosphates for such whole muscle products is by injection, vacuum or static marination. For ground and comminuted systems such as patties, loaves, coarse ground sausages, hot dogs, bologna and meatballs, phosphates are applied in a dry or in solution form. Some phosphates are difficult to dissolve into a solution, with cold or hard water, and the presence of excess salt increases the challenge.

Both lactates and phosphates are safe and suitable multifunctional processing ingredients. Their value to the meat and poultry industry is as great as it is to consumers, who get to enjoy the final cooked product.

“Because the product properties that result from these meat processing ‘tools’ are likely to be altered if these ingredients are reduced or eliminated, processors need to consider any suggested alternatives very carefully and proceed with caution before changing the way the basic meat processing tools are used,” said Dr. Joseph Sebranek, professor at Iowa State Univ., in proceedings from the 2015 American Meat Science Association conference. “Further, because these are truly multifunctional ingredients that have more than one role in meats, changes in how they are used can introduce unexpected changes in the products, and, consequently, the use of multiple alternatives may need to be considered.”

There’s something to be said for tried and true. That’s what you get with lactates and phosphates