Clean Label Cured Meat Products

Consumer trends are indicating an ever-increasing demand for processed meat products where the source of the nitrites used for the cured meat color and flavor is “natural”.  This new approach is what is considered a clean label.


The intention is to replace sodium nitrate and nitrite with “natural” sources of nitrates and nitrites and still have a cured appearance and flavor.  Two examples of these sources are celery juice powder and vegetable juice powder.  However, there are many other sources.

Processed meats that are labeled ‘‘natural’’ must comply with the definition of the term provided by the USDA Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book (USDA, 2005). This definition requires that a natural product ... ... ‘‘does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative (as defined in 21 CFR 101.22), or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed’’. The term ‘‘minimally processed’’ includes ‘‘...traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or to make it safe for human consumption, e.g., smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting, or those physical processes which do not fundamentally alter the raw product..., e.g. grinding meat...’’. (USDA, 2005).


When adding sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite, the basic breakdown is shown below with nitric oxide chemically reacting with the meat pigment myoglobin to form the cured meat pigment.

When making these “alternative cured” products, lactic acid starter cultures, specifically Staphylococcus, are needed to breakdown the nitrates to nitrites.  Lactobacillus and Pediococcus starter cultures do not breakdown nitrates.  Alternative cure accelerators such as cherry powder, acerola powder or lemon powder can be used to break down the nitrites to nitric oxide.


Using nitrates or nitrites from a natural source in large diameter products, until relatively recently, was problematic in FSIS inspected establishments due to the requirement for meeting the chilling guidelines.  The chilling guidelines required that sodium nitrite be used as an ingredient to permit the 15-hour chill.  If sodium nitrite is not present then the rapid six-hour chill was required.  This was until the fall of 2016.  At that time FSIS modified its stance as follows which is taken from askFSIS:

To use the third stabilization option for cured products (fifteen hour chilling time) as described in Appendix B: Compliance Guidelines for Cooling Heat-Treated Meat and Poultry Products (Stabilization), establishments should ensure that at least 100 ppm nitrite is added from the natural source along in addition to at least 250 ppm of ascorbate (for example cherry powder), erythorbate, or another supportable amount of cure accelerator. Establishments should be aware that the concentration of nitrite from natural sources varies greatly depending on the source. Therefore, FSIS recommends that establishments use pre-reduced sources of natural nitrite because the quantity of nitrite is known. When using pre-reduced sources of nitrite, it is important that establishments request information from their supplier regarding the nitrite level in each batch of product (for example by receiving a Certificate of Analysis with each batch or lot). Establishments should calculate the amount of nitrite from natural sources needed to result in at least 100 ppm ingoing nitrite in the product being produced. If an establishment does not calculate the amount of nitrite in the pre-reduced lot or batch, then it should provide support that at least 100 ppm nitrite is added with each batch or lot of fully cooked meat or poultry product.

The pre-reduced (or pre-converted) source of nitrite that FSIS is referring to eliminates the need for starter cultures since the conversion or breakdown from nitrates to nitrites has taken place and the amount of nitrite is known.

Additionally, askFSIS states:


In addition to ensuring that the level of nitrite is sufficient to control the growth of C. perfringens and C. botulinum, establishments should ensure the levels are also safe and suitable according to FSIS Directive 7120.1, "Safe and Suitable Ingredients Used in the Production of Meat and Poultry Products" and 9 CFR 424.21(c)). Currently, celery powder and cherry powder are considered safe and suitable as antimicrobials in ground and formed poultry products that will be processed to be ready-to-eat (RTE).

Establishments can produce products that contain celery powder and other natural sources of nitrite and follow the third stabilization option (fifteen hour chill) for cured products as described in Appendix B: Compliance Guidelines for Cooling Heat-Treated Meat and Poultry Products (Stabilization) provided at least 250 ppm of ascorbate (for example from cherry powder), erythorbate, or another supportable amount of cure accelerator are added. Although products containing natural sources of nitrite must be labeled as "uncured", research demonstrates that celery powder and other natural sources of nitrite can be used to control the growth of Clostridium perfringens (C. perfringens) in meat and poultry products provided ascorbate or a cure accelerator such as erythrobate is present at sufficient concentrations. Similar research has not been performed to show celery powder and other natural sources of nitrite control the growth of Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum). However, FSIS has determined from expert elicitation that nitrite from natural sources should also control the growth of C. botulinum provided ascorbate or a cure accelerator such as erythrobate is added. For more information on labeling of products containing celery powder and other natural sources of nitrite see the askFSIS Answer, Use of Celery Powder and Other Natural Sources of Nitrite as Curing Agents.

The other common ingredient used in cured products is sodium phosphates; used to retain moisture.

Vegetable Fibers can be used as a replacement for phosphates in clean label products. The most common substitute is carrot fibers.  Fiber addition in meat results in decreasing cooking loss alteration in pH and an increase in emulsion stability.  Vegetable fibers in general do a better ob than fruit fibers regarding water holding capacity because there will be an increase in pH away from the isoelectric point as opposed to a lowering of the pH closer to the isoelectric point.

Additionally, dietary fiber as a functional ingredient, can be incorporated with meat products to improve health view of meat products.

The addition of dietary fiber to meat products has been successfully used in improving cooking yield, reducing fat contents, and enhancing texture.


In conclusion, the manufacture of clean label traditionally cured meat products can be accomplished using pre-reduced or pre-converted sources of nitrites and the use of natural cure accelerators such as cherry powder with known levels of ascorbate.  Phosphates can be substituted with vegetable fibers.

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