Art, tradition or simply an efficient use of meat trim, sausage making has a rich history in most cultures. When mechanical refrigeration was unavailable, sausages were a way to store meat for extended periods. Today, sausages are a way to combine meats and seasonings for a pleasant eating experience.

“Globally, there are more than 800 types of sausages,” explains Jim Lamkey, senior principal scientist-technical services group, Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings, Omaha, Neb. “Most of these sausages can fit into one of six categories: fresh, smoked, cooked, cooked and smoked, semi-dry and dry.”

Not much has changed over the years in the manufacturing process of many sausages other than improvements in efficiency and some cost-cutting and food-safety initiatives. But from a formulating perspective, commercial sausage manufacturers are always trying to improve the nutritional profile of these meat products, as they have a reputation of being concentrated sources of fat and sodium.

“Sausages are known to have great taste, but they also have some nutritional flaws as they are high in nitrates, fat, saturated fat and sodium,” says Gary Uram, director of research innovation with Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, Minn.

Lamkey adds, “Both fat and sodium contribute to the overall palatability of sausages. Simply removing these ingredients does not give the same quality sausage.”

Many sausage attributes must be considered when trying to improve the nutritional profile. “To make a food product like a sausage better for you, a balance of flavor, functionality and cost needs to be achieved,” says John Reidy, market development manager of health and nutrition at Jungbunzlauer, Newton Centre, Mass.

What’s in a name?

The term sausage is derived from the word “sal,” which is Latin for salt, and is a nod to the traditional sausage-making technique of combining ground or chopped meat and salt into a tubular casing.

High levels of salt, the primary source of sodium in sausages, discourage the growth of spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms, which is critical for long-term storage without refrigeration. With the advent of mechanical refrigeration, sausage makers were able to decrease salt levels, but its presence is still important for shelf-life and flavor.

Lamkey says, “Sodium is a common carrier of ingredients that provide vital functions to meat processing and its reduction will in many cases require replacements that provide the same quality standards that consumers expect.” For example, curing involves the use of sodium nitrites and sodium nitrates, which assist with preventing microbial growth in sausages while also providing a characteristic flavor and pink or red color.

Because nitrites and nitrates have been associated with illnesses ranging from cancer to heart disease, many manufacturers of better-for-you sausages are now offering uncured varieties. The US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) defines an uncured product as one that has been preserved without the use of chemical agents; however, there are natural sources of nitrate, most notably celery juice, that can be added to sausage formulations to achieve the same desired effect.

The biggest nutritional flaw in mainstream sausages is high sodium, says Reidy, who adds, “Sodium is inherent in many of the ingredients needed to extend shelf life, add flavor and increase water-binding capacity.

“We manufacture a salt replacer that gives the same salty flavor profile, functionality and ease of use as salt, but with a 35 percent sodium reduction when directly replaced,” Reidy adds. It is identified on ingredient legends as salt replacer (sodium chloride, potassium chloride and sodium gluconate) or you can place the separate ingredients accordingly.

“We have also combined sodium nitrite with our salt replacer to offer a reduced-sodium curing salt,” Reidy says. “We are able to support reducing sodium further by offering potassium lactate, a sodium-free alternative to sodium lactate. Usage level and functionality are virtually identical to each other making the switch very easy for formulators. The biggest benefit is achieved when all of these solutions are combined. They work together synergistically and can provide a sodium reduction of up to 68 percent with very little reformulating effort.”

Uram says, “Our company has developed an advanced formula potassium chloride sodium-reduction solution using patented, single-crystal technology. By using our sodium-reduction solution as a 1:1 replacement for traditional sodium chloride salt, sausage manufacturers can reduce sodium levels by up to 50 percent in sausage while maintaining the taste and functional attributes of traditional sodium chloride salt.

“This technology allows us to provide a clean-label solution that not only provides dietary potassium, which most people do not consume enough of, but it eliminates the need for maskers and flavor enhancers,” Uram adds.

The fatty flaw

Fat provides flavor and succulence to many types of sausage. When fat is removed or reduced, ingredients must be added that assist with moisture retention in order to keep the sausage juicy.

“Removing fat from sausages tends to leave a product that is much more rubbery in texture and does not have the same palatability as the traditional sausage,” Lamkey says.

Many manufacturers turn to fibers, starches and gums to assist with retaining moisture. Unfortunately, what often remains missing is the lubricity and savory flavor contributed by fats.

“Starch-based ingredients can help maintain the texture and succulence that characterize sausages while reducing calories and fat,” says Jacobo Poo, technical service engineer, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill.

“Specialty maltodextrins and modified starches can help a manufacturer decrease the fat content in sausages by up to 20 percent,” Poo adds.

Nick Kovalenko, sales and marketing director, Fiberstar Inc., River Falls, Wis., says, “Our citrus fiber has high-water binding capacity and offers manufacturers a possibility to replace up to 30 percent of the fat in sausage. We have successfully manufactured a reduced-fat hot dog with 20 percent fewer calories, 30 percent fewer calories from fat, 27 percent less total fat and 30 percent less saturated fat.”

One dog also contains 4 grams of fiber, Kovalenko relays.

“When used to increase yields, citrus fiber keeps sausages moist and reduces the chance they will lose free water during storage and dry out during cooking,” he adds.

Flavor trends

Spices and seasonings, as well as flavorful ingredients, can build back flavor that is minimized in lower-fat and lower-sodium sausages. The flavor of smoke is particularly effective with building bold taste back into a better-for-you formulation.

“Smoking and smoked flavors are trending right now with meats across the board, and consumer desire for this flavor profile is definitely impacting the sausage category,” Lamkey says.

“We’re also seeing more sweet flavor profiles in the sausage category,” Lamkey says.

“Fruits such as cranberry, pineapple and apple, and spices such as sweet curry, clove and cinnamon are popping up in traditionally savory applications,” he adds.

Consumer interest in heat and spice is also affecting the sausage landscape. “We’re seeing sausages packed with habanero, sriracha, kimchi and hot mustard,” Lamkey continues.

“Achieving the right combination of flavors and enhancements is key to getting to the right end product,” Lamkey concludes. “The result is a delicious sausage that easily fits into a low-sodium, low-fat diet while retaining the quality and satisfaction of the original product.”