Processed Meats Are Improving Their Image

Meat got a black eye in 2015, from animal rights issues to efforts to remove it from the Dietary Guidelines to the World Health Organization cancer report. Are there ways to clean up processed meats labels and maintain their flavor and food safety?

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

"Where's the beef?" was a popular catchphrase from back in the days when people wanted more ground beef in a hamburger. Now, it may be more appropriate to ask, "Where's the plant-based protein?"

This is partly because red and processed meats are challenged by public health advocates, mounting health and wellness trends and recent findings from a World Health Organization (WHO) committee that indicate eating processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

Recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines also say a healthier dietary pattern includes less red and processed meat and animal-based foods.

Hearing this, the meat industry quickly defended meat's many health benefits, saying the level of reaction isn't proportional to the level of threat. The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) condemned the finding by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) panel classifying red and processed meat as cancer "hazards," saying it defies both common sense and shows no correlation between meat and cancer.

Americans like meat, so probably won't give it up completely any time soon. Still, we probably should eat less of it, and that's happening, as the number of meat eaters opting for vegetarian options is rising. A November report from Innova Market Insights notes that "clean eating" is growing among international consumers. Meat eaters are evolving into "flexitarians," it says, by including more vegetarian options and finding more sustainable protein sources.

But there are ways to clean up the labels of processed meats and keep its flavor and quality, meat producers argue. Some are reducing the sodium in their products. In June Smithfield Farmland Food Services Group, Smithfield, Va., began offering a line of No-Salt Added products with less than 140mg per serving. Available to foodservice operators, the line includes lean no-salt added brown sugar hams, hardwood smoked bacon and pre-cooked sausage links and patties.

Jerky is hot these days. Its nutritional composition is said to provide several dietary benefits, like high protein and zinc, though it's also high in sodium. But in moderation, it can be quite satisfying.

Tyson Foods' Ball Park brand, known more for hot dogs, is capitalizing on jerky's popularity with Ball Park Flame Grilled Jerky. Dried to be tough, then flame-grilled for a tender texture, the jerky is made from lean cuts of beef or pork and said to have a distinctive taste and off-the-grill quality. It's also gluten-free, is an excellent source of protein, has half the sodium of regular jerky and has no artificial flavors, colors or added monosodium glutamate (MSG). Uncle Andy’s Jerky (uncle-andys-jerky.com) makes a craft beer-inspired artisanal jerky and recently launched a Boise’s Mushroom Blue Cheese flavor, reminiscent of a grilled steak topped with mushrooms and blue cheese.

On the raw side of the coin, Pre Brands LLC, launched PRE 100% grass-fed steak (ribeye, sirloin, strip and tenderloin) and ground beef (in 85-, 92- and 95-percent-lean varieties) in fully transparent packs for a 360-degree view of the meat.

Lean and pasture-raised, the beef contains higher levels of healthy fatty acids, such as omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acid, less total fat and calories, Pre Brands explains. Its producers use no added antibiotics, added hormones or feedlots, and the meat is meticulously selected to ensure the cuts are in the top 10 percent available.

Man Cave Craft Meats, a premium meat company in Minneapolis, adds value by sourcing its Angus beef cuts from Midwestern farms, craft-blending ingredients like mushrooms, onions, peppers, spices or bleu cheese into ground beef. "We blend different cuts of beef to get different fat ratios," explains owner Nick Beste, whose small-batch craft creations are gaining quite a following. "We wanted to really elevate what was being offered in the meat department," he says.

Going forward, consumers may not eat as much red and processed meat, but they might opt for top quality when they do. Maybe some day it will be the cure and not the problem. Swedish scientists are trying to develop a sausage that could prevent cancer. Research and university scientists there think by extracting antioxidants from plants and berries and adding them to meat, the meat will become not just safer, but preventative, thanks to the health effects of antioxidants.

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