Return to Blog October 4, 2023

The Role of Sustainable Functional Ingredients for Meat and Poultry Products

A family shops at the meat aisle of a grocery store.

Many of the food additives in meat products are vital to putting a safe and enjoyable product on store shelves. As consumer sentiment has refocused on the sustainability of meat and poultry consumption, industry leaders have proactively evaluated the environmental impact of those added ingredients.

From production to processing to the dinner table, the meat and poultry industry is constantly exploring ways to deliver a more sustainable and healthful product.

Categorizing the Food Additives Used in Meat and Poultry

Achieving a sustainable product, whether poultry, meat or any other consumer food, starts with production. In the animal protein market, that means making sound investments in climate-smart agricultural practices. During the processing phase, companies can improve the sustainability of poultry and meat ingredients by addressing category-specific environmental impacts.

While there is some overlap in categorization based on the type of meat and end product, most chemicals in meat processing fall into one of four primary categories.

Meat binders – Binders are used to thicken or fine-tune the texture of meat and poultry products. Processors adjust the binders’ amount, composition and characteristics to achieve a range of results. The most commonly used binding agents are carrageenan, food starch and cellulose.

Meat preservatives – Ingredients like potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate serve the age-old role of preventing microbial growth during processing, shipping and sales. Most processed meat and poultry products rely on one or more sodium-based ingredients; many companies now offer low-sodium alternatives.

Meat additives – Like all food additives, processors rely on a combination of poultry and meat additives to enhance product color, flavor and mouthfeel. These include various natural and synthetic emulsifiers, starches, spices and dyes.

Lactates and phosphates – These ingredients enhance shelf life and maintain moisture levels. Some lactates are also effective in mitigating bacterial growth when used at appropriate levels – typically 4.8% of the additive content in meat products.

Related: How to Improve Distribution’s Carbon Footprint

Are Meat and Poultry Additives Sustainable?

Many of the additives noted above can be sourced from nature or natural processes. Most hydrocolloids, including carrageenan, are sustainably grown by farmers in Southeast Asia and other parts of the globe.

Other added ingredients in meat processing have a more complicated environmental impact, which can be difficult to measure accurately.

Nitrate Sustainability

When paired with sodium, potassium or other agents, nitrates are one of the most reliable and cost-effective preservatives in the food and beverage industry. Nitrates are naturally found in vegetables, though nearly all of the nitrates added to food products are manufactured. Creating synthetic nitrates requires a considerable amount of ammonia, with a notable input waste of over 1,000 kJ/mol.

While nitrate production has a minimal impact on the overall (and substantial) climate impact of the meat and poultry industry, there has been a renewed interest in using natural sources of nitrates. This typically involves processing vegetables that are naturally high in nitrate for ingredient use. Unfortunately for both manufacturers and consumers, the USDA does not distinguish between natural and processed nitrates, so the use of natural nitrates is not clearly defined on packaging.

Phosphate Sustainability

Phosphates, like nitrates, feature in many food products. While most processed phosphates are used as an input material in fertilizer. As a share of total production, most nitrates are used in non-dietary applications, making it challenging to evaluate their impact on the environment. Aside from its input materials (phosphoric acid and sodium hydroxide), perhaps its biggest drawback is logistical. Most nitrates are manufactured in China, which requires substantial transportation costs and related emissions.

Additive Sustainability: How Food Ingredients Can Go Green

Reliable, safe and sustainable food ingredients require immediate and long-term sources of these chemicals – and hundreds of others. Phosphates are used in more than 65% of all processed meat products, and with global meat consumption up more than 58% in the past 20 years, demand for meat and poultry products is only growing.

Producers can lower carbon emissions associated with meat and poultry ingredients in several ways.

Keep it local – Relying on locally sourced additives offers many of the same benefits as relying on local commodities. This reduces transportation costs and related emissions.

Shorten supply chains – Lowering amounts of nitrates and phosphates reduces environmental impact and may benefit human health. In addition to sourcing additives locally, shipping processed foods within small regions allows for lower additive amounts in some applications.

 Go natural – As noted previously, researchers are actively exploring ways to use surplus vegetables to supplement manufactured nitrates in foods. This method may never replace synthetic manufacturing, but it could address at least a portion of the market.

Your Partner in Sustainability and Growth

At Tilley Distribution, we’re committing to supporting our partners’ sustainability goals. Our strong relationships with suppliers allow us to source and deliver quality ingredients across the globe, including the many ingredients vital to meat and poultry production. See what Tilley can do for you; get in touch with a representative today.