Binders allow processors to manipulate various cuts of meat into affordable, delicious and innovative protein options. According to “What’s in Store 2012,” the annual trends publication of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., 82 percent of consumers enjoy visiting supermarket delis that feature newer and trendier items, including meats such as chorizo, kielbasa and salami. These comminuted sausages rely on binders to hold the ground meat and seasonings together in one cohesive mass.

Indeed, sandwiches aren’t just an important part of the American diet; they are essential to it, according to “Sandwiches: Culinary Trend Mapping Report” from the Center for Culinary Development (CCD), San Francisco, and market research publisher Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. “Adventurous Gen Y, nostalgic Gen X and health-minded Boomers are all implicated in this dynamic sandwich renaissance. They crave well-made basics, classics and nostalgics, but also new flavors and new twists on old stand-bys. In many cases, they want their foods to reflect their heritage and international experiences…,” says the center’s CEO, Kimberly Egan.

The same is true for chicken, which is a versatile protein that can be used in the creation of all types of meat products, ranging from sandwich slices to entrée medallions to finger foods.

Chicken fingers are the top poultry dish and have shown a 10 percent increase on menus from the first quarter of 2009 to the same period in 2012. The trend of chicken snacks is also taking menus by storm. From McDonald’s Chicken McBites to Whataburger’s Whatachick’n Bites and White Castle’s Chicken Rings, snack-sized formed chicken pieces are a booming business.

Understanding binders

Most of these proteins rely on binders, which the US Dept. of Agriculture defines as substances that may be added to foods to thicken or improve texture. Unlike fillers and extenders, which are used to lower the cost of meat products by “extending” the meat component, binders are not intended to contribute volume to the meat, rather their goal is to improve the meat’s consistency and mouthfeel. To accomplish this, most binders function by absorbing water, which improves product yield and thus lowers protein costs.

There are all types of binders available to meat processors. Some are based on proteins, with common ingredients being soy isolate, wheat gluten, milk caseinate, gelatin and eggs. Usage levels tend to be low, around 2 percent, which is why they are not considered extenders or fillers. Yet, their highly functional protein content is instrumental in binding water and restructuring the total protein matrix, which improves the meat’s eating qualities.

Enzymes, which are a type of protein, were defended by the American Meat Institute earlier this year as not being “meat glue.” The two enzymes scrutinized — transglutaminase (TG) and beef fibrin — have long been used as binders in meat; however, their applications are few and include mostly foodservice products. All packaged meat products that contain these enzymes must declare them on the ingredient statement and the product must be labeled “formed” or “reformed.”

For example, a common application is to bind two large beef tenderloins together. Tenderloins have a thick end and a pointed end, and when laid on top of one another in opposite directions, these enzymes enable the two pieces to bond together so that when sliced, the filets are uniform in size.

Other binders contain little or no protein, such as fibers, flours and starches. Though some such ingredients are commonly used as extenders or fillers, there are specialty carbohydrates designed for the sole purpose of binding moisture in processed meats to improve the products sensory characteristics. Popular binders in ground meat-based products include oatmeal, bread crumbs, rice and even semolina.

Hydrocolloids such as carrageenan are highly water absorbent, with the addition of as little as 0.01 percent being able to increase the yield of the finished product up to 8 percent. Carrageenan can improve the texture of coarse products such as burgers and skinless sausage products, as well as improve the slicing quality of cooked hams.

Phosphates are likely the most effective water-binding agents in processed meats. Phosphates open the structure of proteins, which, in turn, enables the proteins to hold large amounts of water. This increased water-holding capacity is what prevents water losses when meat is smoked and cooked. USDA limits the amount of phosphate that can go into animal proteins, with the maximum usage level resulting in 0.5 percent in the finished product.

Food-grade phosphates are typically available as salts and produced by neutralization of phosphoric acid with a metal element such as potassium and sodium. Phosphate ingredients range in the number of phosphate units they contain and this influences functionality. Meat processors typically source phosphate blends that are optimized for a particular application. For labeling purposes, USDA allows all approved phosphates to be collectively labeled as potassium phosphates or sodium phosphates, instead of using complex chemicals names.

Plum-derived ingredients, which contain naturally occurring sorbitol and fiber, are emerging as a clean-label alternative to phosphates. Three percent plum puree added to low-fat ground meat increases the moisture content, improving the juiciness of the burger while keeping fat contents low.

With so many binders available to meat processors, endless innovations are possible to “meet” the needs of today’s adventurous consumer.

Binders are not intended to contribute volume to the meat, rather their goal is to improve the meat’s consistency and mouthfeel.