Consumers have many expectations when they shop for meat, many of which are based on color.

KANSAS CITY — It’s all about the color when it comes to purchasing meat and poultry. Consumers eat with their eyes, and off-colored product does not get the taste buds excited.

According to The Power of Meat 2015 study from the North American Meat Institute, 65% of consumers sift through meat packages every time they shop, with product appearance the No. 2 factor when selecting and buying meat and poultry. The No. 1 consideration is price.

“It’s a known fact that consumers prefer the bright cherry-red color of fresh beef and the pink of fresh poultry,” said Poulson Joseph, lead scientist of meat and poultry antioxidants at Kalsec in Kalamazoo, Mich. “Case-ready packaging allows for ingredient technologies to keep color stable. Consumers feel more confident that colorful meat will taste delicious once they cook it.”

Arno Sandoval, principal applications scientist at DuPont Nutrition and Health in St. Louis, said, “In the highly competitive and cost-sensitive market for fresh ground meat, producers must constantly match or exceed shelf life performance in order to maintain market share. Bright red color typically indicates product freshness, so retail shoppers may reject acceptable ground meat that has begun to turn brown in the display case or home refrigerator, resulting in returns and waste of food. To help delay the degradation effects from oxidation, manufacturers can use natural antioxidants during processing without compromising the standard of identity, as they are labeled as natural flavors.”

Proper color development in certain cooked meats, such as those described as cured, is just as important as color retention in fresh meat, according to Ron Jenkins, commercial development manager of meat, poultry and seafood at Innophos Inc. in Cranbury, N.J. He explained that meat color is dependent on two muscle proteins, myoglobin and hemoglobin, with myoglobin being the predominant pigment protein.

“Factors influencing meat color are extensive and include animal conditions such as age, nutrition and metabolic state; muscle type; presence of nitrogenous compounds, for example nitrate or nitrite; packaging environment; ingredients; and pH,” he said. 

Rosemary and green tea extracts are proven ingredients for their ability to positively impact the appearance, taste and quality of meat.

Going natural

As consumer demand for clean, simple, natural ingredients continues to rise, meat and poultry processors are moving away from synthetic ingredients in favor of clean-label solutions. A number of plant extracts have been shown to ensure appealing color from processing plant to kitchen counter.

Rosemary and green tea extracts are proven ingredients for their ability to positively impact the appearance, taste and quality of meat. Both contain phenolic compounds that function as antioxidants, preventing oxidative breakdown of meat pigments by being oxidized themselves. The main difference between the two plant extracts is that green tea extract has a lower negative flavor contribution to the final product. Thus, using a lower level of rosemary extract in combination with green tea extract allows the manufacturer to increase the natural plant extract usage rate, often resulting in an extract blend that works better in the meat product than using rosemary alone, according to a study conducted at the Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln for Kemin Food Technologies, based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Acerola cherry extract is also proving to be a highly effective ingredient in meat and poultry. Extracted from the namesake wild plant grown in tropical and subtropical regions, acerola extract contributes the antioxidant vitamin C.

“Our acerola extract blends delay both lipid and myoglobin oxidation, thereby delaying the onset of color loss and maintaining the desirable color and quality of meat products,” said Courtney Schwartz, senior marketing communications manager at Kemin. “When used in combination with rosemary and green tea extracts, acerola is more effective at delaying early discoloration than either extract alone.”

Fruit extracts, like acerola cherry, can help delay meat discoloration.

DuPont offers a patent-pending blend of acerola extract and green tea extract that maintains color and sensory qualities in fresh ground beef and pork in the refrigerated meat case up to four days longer in overwrap packaging and even longer in high-oxygen packaging than samples treated with other or no plant extracts, according to Mr. Sandoval.

“Case-ready meats have revolutionized fresh ground beef marketing,” Mr. Joseph said. “Our patented natural antioxidant technology helps processors extend color shelf life while maintaining a product’s appeal in taste and quality.”

Kalsec offers a rosemary extract that retains fresh ground beef color in high oxygen-modified atmosphere (80% oxygen) case-ready packaging – master bag or lidded trays – during storage and retail display. For additional meat color stability, Kalsec developed an oxidation management ingredient system compatible with both modified atmosphere packaging (high and low oxygen) and overwrap packaging.

“The ingredient system optimizes acerola extract with rosemary extract to stabilize both the color and flavor in fresh meats by delaying pigment and lipid oxidation, respectively,” Mr. Joseph said.

Corbion Purac, Lenexa, Kas., recently introduced an advanced food safety ingredient that also assists with color retention in fresh sausages and ground meats.

“It is based on a patent-pending blend of vinegar and jasmine tea extract,” said Saurabh Kumar, senior applications manager of meat for Corbion Purac. “Vinegar is a source of acetic acid that is very effective against spoilage organisms and pathogens and is commonly used in natural and clean-label processed meats. However, vinegar can affect the pH of meat products, which can be detrimental to color and bind. The pH of this ingredient has been optimized to maintain color uniformity and reduce grey discoloration during shelf life.”

Some ingredients, like those from Prosur and Wenda Ingredients, have been shown to improve shelf life by preventing oxidation discoloration and spoilage in beef and chicken.

Through a partnership with Prosur Ingredients of Spain, Wenda Ingredients, based in Naperville, Ill., offers a range of proprietary blends of fruit and spice extracts with proven antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

“One solution is designed for fresh meat and poultry and has been shown to improve shelf life by preventing oxidation discoloration and growth of spoilage microorganisms,” said Chad Boeckman, national accounts and marketing manager at Wenda Ingredients. “On fresh, conventionally packaged chicken breast, shelf life can often be doubled from 12 to 24 days.”

Another ingredient option contributes desirable cured color and flavor to true-uncured cooked meats, such as deli-style hams, bacon and pepperoni.

“This system allows for cured color with the lowest possible amount of residual nitrates or nitrites in the industry,” Mr. Boeckman said.

Plum ingredients have also been shown to assist with color in fresh and cooked meat products, according to Rick Perez, research and development chef consultant for Sunsweet Ingredients, Walnut Creek, Calif.

“Plum ingredients can provide an indirect way to preserve or enhance color, but they are not a replacement for nitrates/nitrites or other products designed to preserve color,” Mr. Perez said. “If the application is about removing phosphates, fresh plum concentrate can help with color, especially with poultry, as phosphates tend to bleach out the meat, making it whiter. With red meat, a lot depends on packaging. Fresh plum concentrate alone won’t stop oxidation. What it does do is extend shelf life, which improves visual sensory analysis.”

Appearance matters with meat and poultry. Color is an important visual cue to freshness, quality and deliciousness.